Students and global health experts share their experiences working with communities.

Category: Keely

Bittersweet endings, new beginnings

I cannot fathom how it is already almost August 2021. Nearly a year ago to the day, I moved to Chapel Hill, and somehow, I’m already wrapping up two months of work with the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS) and preparing for year two at Gillings.

It has been a wonderful, albeit very fast, two months of learning about alcohol harm and significant gaps in research regarding various issues in alcohol (I think this is a result of the industry’s influence and attempt to keep negative press away from their products). When I last wrote, I had just completed a briefing and was transitioning into work on a rapid review of calorie labelling for a parliamentary consultation— my work was going to potentially be shared with parliamentary members (how cool!) and I was going to have the opportunity to listen in on some of the discussions to gain a better understanding of how NGO’s initiate the policy-making process through the power of persuasion (backed, of course, with plenty of good old-fashioned evidence-based research). But things have taken a shift, and now I will be producing an interim report that will help IAS’ head of policy and the UK’s Alcohol Health Alliance to prepare for the consultation later in the year. Still pretty cool, and something I’ve worked hard on and will be proud of, but not as fast-paced, exciting, and in-the-moment as I was hoping to end my practicum.

Of course, I began my practicum very interested in alcohol issues, but as the summer has progressed, I’ve realized how very little I know about the world of alcohol and the alcohol industry. I’ve experienced a lot of anger and wonder (an interesting combination) about the relative dearth of research regarding the subjects I’ve been collating information on—but I’ve also experienced hope for a future that offers more transparency and publicly available information so people can make the healthiest decisions for themselves. Regardless of what my post-grad career may be (I can definitely see myself continuing work with an alcohol research organization, but I’m passionate about a number of subjects), I look forward to seeing research expand and alcohol knowledge and policies improve.

Beyond what I’ve learned in my literature reviews, I’ve learned a lot about myself. For the past year, I’ve been saying that I would love to work remotely from the comfort of my home for the flexibility, the lack of a commute, etc., but working remotely has proven to be an immense challenge in the second half of this experience. It is hard for me to find motivation from the place where I also relax and sleep, and it’s hard to find productivity without the buzzing energy of colleagues focusing alongside me. I have at times felt pretty disconnected from the larger picture, but at Tuesday meetings I am reminded of the impact IAS has in the sphere of alcohol policy and research and how my practicum products are meant to feed into that puzzle. While I usually pride myself on my writing skills, I have been fighting away feelings of self-doubt in the past few weeks. I need balance. I need people. I’ve loved the detailed learning that this position has given me, but I think I’m better suited for a community-facing role. This has been invaluable insight for someone who considers herself an introvert and a homebody, who finds herself content in a variety of situations.

All that being said, I am proud of the work I have done and I’m still confident that my report will turn out well. I’m incredibly grateful for this two-month peek into policy research and advocacy, and for the connections I’ve made with such wonderful people halfway across the world.

This past weekend, I escaped to Asheville to enjoy the summer for a brief moment as it was meant to be enjoyed; roadtrips full of music (a given), a day hike and swim, ice cream, good meals with loved ones—refreshing the mind to end my practicum strongly and start the new semester just as bright-eyed as when we began a full year ago.

Here’s to the incredible work we’ve all completed this summer and to a rewarding upcoming year full of learning and human connection.

– Keely

A global practicum in times of COVID-19 doesn’t feel as new as expected

Hi! My name is Keely and I’m an MPH candidate at Gillings School of Global Public health with a concentration in nutrition. This summer, I’m working with the London-based Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS) to develop reports which will be used to help guide future alcohol research and inform evidence-based alcohol policy in the UK.

Prior to my studies at Gillings, I received my bachelors in German studies and taught English with Fulbright Austria before working for a short time with a major health insurance company as a health advocate—I’ve jumped around a bit in fairly different areas, but the accumulation of all of these experiences is what led me to pursue public health nutrition. This past year has taken a slight turn, however, as my interest in nutrition education and community involvement has shifted to one of bringing change through policy advocacy. I’ve also grown more interested in alcohol consumption and misuse as a public health issue—two of my major projects last year focused on alcohol misuse. As a result, I’ve reflected a lot on alcohol’s role in my life and in my surrounding community, and on the social responsibility of the alcohol industry. When it came time to search for a practicum, I fortuitously stumbled upon my current position with the IAS and knew that it was the perfect fit for my developing interests.

Over the past three weeks, I worked on a briefing for alcohol use and harms among UK-based LGBTQ+ people, intended to identify gaps in knowledge (spoiler, there are a lot), and guide future research. Ultimately, this should help tailor health messaging and provide evidence behind advocacy for safer, more inclusive spaces for queer people within healthcare and alcohol treatment services. I had a slower start than I’d planned for—my job is fully remote, and I meet with my team for only one hour per week. Because of this, I found it really difficult to feel like a part of the organization and find the momentum to start during my first week (luckily that didn’t last long!). Aside from a slow start, my practicum hasn’t felt so out of the ordinary as I was expecting; I’m learning new things and my work is meant to contribute to more than a grade on my transcript, but I feel comfortable and confident working from my living room. Now that I’ve settled in and finished up my first product, my attention has turned to my second project, which will be a rapid review on the calorie labeling of alcoholic beverages.

Currently, the alcohol industry is not required to label beverages with nutritional information; UK government has announced a consultation to consider requirement of calorie labeling on alcoholic beverages as part of their new Obesity Strategy. The review that I’m putting together will be used to guide IAS’s work on the consultation. I thoroughly enjoyed my areas of research in alcohol use for last year’s academic, skill-building projects, but it is such a different (read: more enjoyable) feeling to begin work on something that will hopefully help create real societal impact. It’s somewhat intimidating, but in a good way that also makes me incredibly excited to begin a career in less than one short year.

For both projects, my days have consisted of and will continue to consist of literature reviews and writing. I’m excited to continue learning about this topic and the alcohol industry, and how the UK parliamentary system works. I’m considering pursuing a career in alcohol research/policy following graduation, so it’ll be interesting to build this base of knowledge and identify potential areas for alcohol research and policy advocacy within the US. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to improve upon my research and writing skills and work within a small, female-run research organization that has significant influence in the UK policy sector.

The rest of this summer will be quite busy, as I’m working a second job atop my practicum, but it’s already shaping up to be one of the best I’ve had— from the meaningful work and connections I’m building, to making the most of my free time and weekends. I’m looking forward to what’s to come!