01/13/2015 05:45 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2015

A Crossroads of Research and Education

There is a common misconception that Johns Hopkins is a research university that cares more about getting published than teaching its students. While the former is hardly a point of contention, my experience with the latter has drastically changed my views on the polarized nature of that opinion. A quick search of just about any scholarly database with Hopkins as an affiliation gives you thousands of pages of articles of proof that yes, Hopkins loves getting published. That said, had it not been for the education I received in my major, I highly doubt I would have spent my summer involved in a meaningful research project on the other side of the hemisphere.

As a public health major, the largest major on campus, I spent much of my academic career studying vulnerable populations, reading about social determinants of health, and analyzing intervention strategies. It took me until the spring of my junior year, about the time resume building becomes "a thing" again, to consider taking my newly acquired skills one step further, from classroom-based inquiry to field-based investigation. I applied for the Global Health Established Field Placement grant (GHEFP) through the Center for Global Health and was selected with 64 other students for field placement in an international work setting. Several meetings and plane rides later, I was in Puno, Peru.

Puno sits snugly on the western side of Lake Titicaca, 12,500 feet above sea level. I was there to help PRISMA, a local NGO, and measure levels of particulate matter (PM) in the homes of urban and rural residents of Puno. The city was chosen due to its rapidly urbanizing, peri-urban nature; in much of the developing world, cities that undergo rapid urbanization face a plethora of contextual health disparities. Puno has a high incidence of childhood asthma, growth stunting, and chronic adult cardiopulmonary health issues associated with the air pollutants (PM or otherwise) created from the rapid infrastructural expansion of the city. But beyond the abundantly visible PM released from car exhaust in the streets and the elevation, which forces the lungs to work harder to inhale oxygen, my team's research project was to study the effect of indoor air pollution on these health outcomes.

Urban Puno has electricity, but it is very expensive. They thus forgo some of the amenities we take for granted in the US; light for hot water, Wi-Fi for heat, home phones for electric stoves. In cooking with gas stoves, the fumes release PM, CO2, heat, and a ton of other less-than-pleasant things for your respiratory tract. Rural residents, however, experience higher levels of these particulates because they don't have electricity. They cook with combustibles and biomass, inhaling the fumes of wood and dried alpaca and cow dung. My job as an investigator was to measure the levels of PM by traveling door-to-door and asking urban and rural residents to let me place a cage of tiny machines that measured PM, CO2, temperature, and humidity in their kitchens.

Waking up between the hours of 4 and 7 a.m. to catch rural and urban residents before work was hard, but climbing hundreds of stairs at an altitude I was not used to only to have families not be home was even harder. It got easier to take cold showers and layer up in the office, which was usually colder than outside while the sun was out, but the perseverance and fortitude required to perform clinical research is nothing short of incredible. The data was worth it; Puno is largely a projection of rapid industrialization in any country, many of which have similar cooking methods and experience similar health outcomes. But beyond numerical peaks and bounds, and all complaints aside, I attribute much of my success in this research project to my education at Hopkins. It was through learning about environmental exposures and biological responses that I was able to understand the gravity of these exposures. It was in understanding the importance of community health workers in connecting outside investigators with local populations that I was able to build a respectful relationship with PRISMA. In getting involved in research, I have become a better student. But I have also become a stronger investigator -- a skill that extends beyond the classroom.