Penn State places fourth out of 31 teams in global health competition

Six people, all College of Medicine Global Health Scholar competition participants, stand in a line; five are wearing We Are Global Health shirts.College of Medicine Global Health Scholar competition participants: Jasmine Mackley, Belle Peterson, Samantha Murphy, Samuel Jump, Elijah Akinade, Mahmoud Azqul

Penn State students Elijah Akinade, Mahmoud Azqul, Jasmine Mackley, Samantha Murphy and Belle Peterson proposed a solution to curbing a “twindemic” public health crisis in India that won them fourth place among 31 teams from across the U.S. at the 2024 Emory Morningside Global Health Case Competition, held in Atlanta on Saturday, March 23.

May 7, 2024Penn State College of Medicine News

“I am immensely proud of our students for their outstanding performance at the case competition,” said Kristin Sznajder, PhD, assistant professor of public health sciences and associate director of international initiatives for Penn State College of Medicine’s Public Health Graduate Program. “Their victory is a reflection of their outstanding dedication, teamwork and innovation, and their ability to compete on a global stage.”

Participating teams were faced with the following scenario: The prime minister of India has set an ambitious goal to eliminate tuberculosis (TB) in the country by 2025, but the connection between diabetes mellitus (DM) and TB is an obstacle that threatens progress toward ending TB. How could the country better integrate and improve TB-DM care to tackle this twindemic?

The case competition is a unique experience that is often identified as a high point in participants’ academic careers because it allows students to apply their classroom knowledge to a multi-faceted global health challenge.

“In the real world, science coexists with a web of social, political and other factors. To address public health crises in these complex dynamics, we need to equip our future leaders with critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills to protect the nation’s health,” said Wenke Hwang, PhD, associate professor of public health sciences and director of the College’s master of public health (MPH) program. “This case competition, and the Penn State public health graduate programs, aim to hone these exact skills.”

“It is hard to overstate how incredibly important the opportunity to participate in the case competition is for undergraduate students in the global health minor,” added Dana Naughton, PhD, director of Penn State’s academic minor in global health. “Debating, problem-solving, practicing with their graduate school team peers and, in the course of just a few weeks, presenting a viable and inspiring solution to a critical issue in global health to world experts is indeed an unparalleled learning experience.”

The interdisciplinary Penn State team comprising a cross-campus group of both graduate and undergraduate students from the College of Medicine and University Park worked together, drawing on their own unique experiences, to present a three-phase proposal to confront the twindemic.

Phase One focused on training accredited social health activists and building community awareness. The second phase involved enacting comprehensive screenings and data integration through artificial intelligence. Phase Three honed in on preventing TB and managing DM at the clinical level.

The group’s diverse backgrounds and education levels, team members said, seemed to set them apart and strengthened their proposal.

“As an undergraduate, I can’t emphasize enough how valuable it was to work alongside and learn from my team members who were pursuing master’s and doctorate degrees,” said Peterson, a biobehavioral health student at the University Park campus. “Everyone was very accomplished from an academic standpoint, but more importantly, we all had personal connections to communities across the globe, and brought those perspectives into our work. I think that’s what helped our proposal to stand out, and it was something that I really cherished about our team.”

Julie Lentes, senior instructor of public health sciences and the team’s faculty mentor, also highlighted the diverse and synergistic strengths of the Penn State team.

“This impressive achievement showcases the dedication and collaborative spirit of our students from diverse academic backgrounds. Their innovative solutions to complex global health challenges demonstrate the power of teamwork in tackling real-world issues,” she said. “We are incredibly proud of their performance and their commitment to improving global health outcomes.”

Penn State has been participating in the Emory Morningside Global Health Case Competition since 2018. Each year, the competition poses a different hypothetical but realistic global health challenge, and teams have a week to develop a 12-minute presentation outlining their solution.

The College’s Department of Public Health Sciences helps to coordinate the application process for the competition, aiming to involve as many Penn State campuses and programs as possible. Four to six applicants are chosen to participate, and they begin working on mock exercises in January. For the next two months, the team collaborates virtually to complete weekly projects that are designed to grow their understanding of global health and prepare them for the competition.

During the competition in March, teams presented their proposal before a panel of public health experts and fielded questions during a Q&A with judges. Teams were then narrowed down and in the second round, the finalists were asked to tweak their proposals to accommodate a “twist:” How would their proposals include both the private and public sectors of health care in India?

“Competing with 31 teams from six continents, each bringing unique perspectives and backgrounds, made this competition highly competitive and challenging,” said Azqul, a doctor of public health student at the College. “However, the preparation period made the Penn State team collaborate productively with distinctive character and enhanced the team.”

Only the top five teams place in the competition. Penn State’s teams have won fourth place twice and received an honorable mention over the course of their participation in the contest – an impressive track record, Lentes noted, especially given the COVID-19 pandemic and changing formats they have navigated.

This year, the Penn State team placed in the competition behind the University of Pittsburgh, which won third place. The teams’ rankings were the same in 2022, when Penn State placed fourth among 52 teams and the University of Pittsburgh placed third.

“Pennsylvania’s governor should be proud of the Commonwealth’s future health professionals,” Lentes said.

Also this year, the Penn State team had the benefit of a student mentor: Samuel Jump, a fourth-year medical student and captain of the 2022 team, spent eight weeks with the group over Zoom, coaching them and working on practice cases to hone their skills.

“It was a great experience to work together with a diverse group of students who had varying levels of knowledge on different topics,” said Akinade, an MPH student at the College. “I particularly enjoyed learning about the different approaches to tackling the twindemic in India and I am thankful for the opportunity to participate in the competition.”

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