Like many others who have contributed to this blog, my practicum experience has been fundamentally altered by the pandemic. It’s been great to read about others’ experiences and know that the separation from the communities we’re working with has affected everyone. For me, that community is nearly 8,000 miles away – in Lusaka, Zambia.

A little bit of background on my practicum: Zambia has one comprehensive cancer center, the Cancer Diseases Hospital (CDH), which serves the country’s population of over 17 million people. Since 2006, when the CDH was established, they have treated over 20,000 new cancer cases. The most common cancers seen at the CDH are cervical, breast, and prostate cancers. In recent years, in an effort to better understand determinants and outcomes of these cancers, doctors and researchers at CDH have prioritized data collection and exploration. They’ve developed a retrospective-prospective database to capture data on the cases of breast and cervical cancer at CDH. As part of my practicum, I am helping one of the data teams with data cleaning and validation, and conducting some research using the information in the database.

The distance to Lusaka fortunately hasn’t prevented me from being able to develop and practice data management skills. In my practicum search, I knew I wanted to get experience working with data, and the work I’ve been able to do this summer has been incredible for giving me opportunities to expand on concepts and techniques we’ve learned across in our first two semesters of coursework.

But the distance has also created challenges – divorcing the content of my work from the community I am meant to be working in. Our instructors at Gillings this past year have repeatedly emphasized that humans aren’t data points. A person’s story cannot be fully understood when it is distilled into a series of responses across a set of variables. But the separation from Zambia has left me feeling the absence of community interaction and the context of the of the data I work with day-to-day. I’d love to have been able to be safely face-to-face with researchers, co-workers, and patients at the CDH.

Other posts on this blog have wisely extoled the power of gratitude and searching for silver linings during these unconventional times. And I have a lot to be thankful for! I’m glad I’ve gotten to spend (virtual) time with the CDH data team over Zoom, learning snippets here and there about them – their academic and career interests, their thoughts about certain health topics, what sports they follow. Being remote also means that I’ve been able to see my family and friends and get to know Chapel Hill/Carrboro better! And, finally, this experience has instilled in me a key lesson I intend to carry throughout my career: some public health work can be done extremely effectively remotely, but the quality and value of this work can always be made better through connection with the community.