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Health & Wellness

Extolling the Virtues of a Public Health Career

SPH field trip for high school students, with focus on obesity

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Keyana Therildot never expected to come away from a field trip feeling an urge to read the nutrition labels on bottles of soda. But after attending the fifth annual New Faces in Public Health on the Medical Campus, Therildot said she can’t help but pay closer attention to what she drinks.

“It really surprised me to learn how much sugar is in a bottle of soda—it’s gross,” said Therildot, one of 70 high school students who came to the daylong event last month hosted by the School of Public Health. New Faces in Public Health is designed to give the students a better understanding of the importance of public health, with a particular focus  this year on the obesity epidemic gripping the nation. “I’ll definitely look at a label now to see what I’m drinking,” Therildot said.

New Faces in Public Health is one of the many ways the school reaches out to the surrounding community, says Harold Cox, an SPH associate professor and associate dean of public health practice. “The day is an opportunity for high school students to admire the work of graduate students working in the field and encourages them to strive for a similar goal,” Cox noted. “And the high school students see the actual implementation of public health in the real world, like newly designed programs and policy analysis.”

The event’s focus on obesity was tied to a new two-year, school-wide initiative called Spotlight on Obesity, launched by SPH this past October. The program examines the complex legislative, environmental, social, behavioral, and economic issues surrounding obesity, which in turn could have direct implications for the local community in terms of better research and funding.

The day began at 9 a.m. as students from the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers and the Community Academy of Science and Health—two Boston high schools for students interested in pursuing careers in the health sciences—gathered in a first floor SPH auditorium for a presentation on the role of public health in everyday life. At the front of the room stood Anne Fidler, an SPH associate professor and assistant dean of public health practice.

“If you’re wondering why public health matters,” Fidler said to the students, “answer this question: what was the average life expectancy of a man in 1900?” Few hands came up, most likely owing to the fact that it was 9 a.m.

Fidler’s answer: 47. “And today? It’s 77.” That statistic immediately piqued the students’ interest.

In addition to increasing life expectancy, Fidler continued, the field of public health works with communities to promote healthy lifestyles and public education. “You can grow up to be a doctor or a nurse and create a world where people have long and healthy lives,” she encouraged the students.

Next up was José Massó, program manager of the Boston Moves for Health initiative spearheaded by the Boston Public Health Commission as part of a challenge by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino (Hon.’01) to the city to lose a million pounds through a balanced diet and exercise regimen.

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High school students take part in stretching exercises.

Massó cited some alarming statistics of an epidemic that cost the nation $147 billion in medical costs in 2008. He noted that only 29 percent of Boston kids say they engage in regular physical activity, only 19 percent say they eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, and 25 percent admit to drinking one or more sodas a day. Without a drastic lifestyle change, Massó said, these young people may soon join the 60 percent of Boston adults who are obese. He noted that the figures are especially high in the city’s poorer neighborhoods, including Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan.

Throughout the morning, SPH students and professors led the high schoolers in games, trivia, and contests designed to educate them further about obesity and other public health issues. After some stretching exercises (a few grumbles were heard), Massó hooked up pedometers to two volunteers to record how many steps they walk throughout the day. The kids were urged to ask for calorie ratings at fast food restaurants and to make use of Boston’s bike-share program Hubway. “Don’t be as worried about losing weight, but try to maintain a healthy weight and eat well,” Massó urged them.

Later, the high school students fanned out to view more than 90 poster presentations, detailing research projects undertaken by SPH students, filling a large room. Topics ranged from research on the benefits of smoke-free homes to fetal alcohol spectrum disorders and a program designed to reduce maternal and child mortality in Guatemala.

Laura Rabin, SPH public health practice practicum manager, coordinated the day’s events and said she was thrilled with the high schoolers’ reactions. “The earlier they get interested in public health the better, because it gets them started as leaders sooner,” Rabin said.

Mihret Molla, a 16-year-old who hopes to become a gynecologist, said the event helped affirm her career choice. She feels drawn to public health after seeing women suffer during childbirth in her native Ethiopia, she said, and she hopes to eventually return to Africa to help women.

The visit to SPH also got her thinking about her own health choices. Molla admitted that her favorite foods are rice, beans, and chocolate. Although she is thin, she said that she exercises infrequently.

“Today has opened my eyes to eating a little better,” said the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers junior. “I mean, I’m a teenager, but that doesn’t mean I can ignore this stuff.”

 

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Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

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