Reflection on the APHA annual conference

by Aileen Shen

Last year, I thought the American Public Health Association (APHA) conference was one of the best events a public health student could attend.  This year, after attending many more conferences, I still feel the same way.

I arrived in Denver, CO on an early November 2010 weekend morning, unbeknownst to me on the same flight with fellow Tufts University Sackler and Friedman students.  We spotted each other upon landing, bonded, and navigated our way downtown towards our hotels and conference center.  Upon registration, we noted we had quite an adventure ahead.  The 2-centimeter thick conference program was crammed with events for the following 5 days.  There were oral presentations, poster sessions, and interest group meetings organized by various groups such as social work, maternal child health, HIV/AIDs, health law, environment, oral health, nursing, and caucuses such as the socialist, women’s, Latino, black, and Asian Pacific Islander caucuses.  There was something for everyone!  It was an especially great time for students to explore varied areas of public health they may not have been exposed to at school while also delving further into their area of interest.  The many community-based participatory research sessions helped me see the application of multiple interests combined, including quantitative and qualitative research to improve community health.  The conference aligned many puzzle pieces for me.

One of the best parts of the previous year’s conference was the student assembly and other student events, so I made an extra effort to arrive the day before the opening session for it this year.  I was grateful to meet other students and professionals,  with whom we could share and learn from.  Students came from many walks of life, and guest speakers and mentors had years of wisdom.  We fostered dialogue and our commitment to public health became evident.  This year more students were able to participate in the coveted speed mentoring sessions to get personalized guidance and direction from extremely caring experts, based on topics such as “finding focus” and “finding a job.”  As a student body we learned how to have the best experience in the academic world, about the job search process, and what to expect and how to prepare for the road ahead.

There were great opportunities to network, hand out business cards, and résumés, whether a student was meeting an expert during a speed mentoring session, having a good conversation with someone at a poster session or oral presentation, or talking with a company representative at the exposition center.  Attendees genuinely wanted to help and meet people.  Also available were presentation opportunities, at a disproportionately higher percentage for students than many other conferences.  And I, who hoped to present a poster on pediatric research after observing this at the previous year’s poster sessions, was surprised to have an opportunity to give a 20 minute oral presentation.  The conference was full of presentation and career opportunities, especially for those who sought them.

Additionally, the conference was inspirational. This year included inspirations such as Princeton professor and philosopher Cornel West, UNC biostatician and epidemiologist Bill Jenkens, and U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health Howard Koh who passionately provided insight on achieving social justice.  They spoke poetically. “There are 3 kinds of people,” said Dr. Koh.  “Those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who ask what happened.”  The laughter, nods, and applauds suggested that we, a public health body, want to be in the first category, of making things happen rather than not acting and wondering what happened.  It was a good reminder of the potential and power of individuals acting within a larger like-minded body.  Another bit of inspiration sprung from the idea of passion (“to suffer”) and compassion (“to suffer with”) working collaboratively.  They complement each other and I was encouraged to embody more of both.  Hearing about social justice efforts, which was the conference theme, reminded me and other students that the long hours we have spent learning and toiling in the library and classroom studying public health have not been in vain.

The conference is an annual gem and one of the best conferences for students interested in public health.  It is a great opportunity to hear about varied public health efforts, network, partake in student programs, and be inspired.  A small army of Tufts students flew out to the annual 2010 APHA conference and have returned better equipped as students and public health professionals.  See for yourself what the buzz is about by attending the 2011 APHA annual conference!

Aileen Shen is a public health student with an interest in the melding of qualitative and quantitative research and is a fan of community based participatory research.  She enjoys running, swimming, rock climbing, and tea.

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