Fighting malaria with the WHO

Economics student Paulin Nusser tells us about her placement with the WHO


Name: Paulin Nusser

Degree course: Economics

College: Magdalene

Will graduate in: 2019


When I first applied to the Cambridge Global Health Scheme, I did not anticipate how profoundly this  experience  would  shape  me.  At  the  time  of  writing,  I  am  eight  weeks  into  my  placement, with just one week to go. My hopes were far surpassed during these incredible two months.

In 2017, WHO launched the Mekong Malaria Elimination (MME) programme, which evolved from the Emergency response to artemisinin resistance (ERAR), a high-­level plan of attack to contain the spread of drug-­resistant parasites in the Greater Mekong Subregion.  The  six  countries  of  the  Subregion  –  Cambodia,  China,  Lao  PDR,  Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam – share the common target of eliminating malaria by the year 2030. The MME team in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, supports the Subregion’s malaria elimination strategy by facilitating coordination and dialogue among partners, communicating with external stakeholders, and coordinating cross-­border initiatives.

‘I am immensely grateful  for  the  faith  my  supervisors  have  placed  in  me,  selecting  me  despite  my  unconventional background’

My undergraduate degree being in Economics, I had a very limited understanding of the technical complexities that the global fight to eliminate malaria faces. However, thanks to the fantastic support I received from my team, this did not impede my learning experience. Instead, it proved to be a wonderful opportunity to dive into an unfamiliar field and grow my passion in a new direction. I walk away from this experience with a much deeper knowledge of myself, my interests and my strengths. I am immensely grateful  for  the  faith  my  supervisors  have  placed  in  me,  selecting  me  despite  my  unconventional background in this area, and for the tremendous guidance throughout.

Unlike most WHO placements which are based in Geneva, Paulin was based in Cambodia

Prior to the start of my internship, my supervisor directed me towards an open-­source lecture  course  in  order  to  familiarize  myself  with  the  scientific  and  technological  underpinnings of malaria, as well as to explore the historical, political, social and economic contexts in which control and elimination efforts are conducted globally. This I completed before arriving. I would advise any prospective intern to ask for, and be open  to,  resources  that  can  help  you  prepare  beforehand.  I  was  also  invited  to  participate in the team’s weekly video call before my arrival in Cambodia. These small steps prior to starting my internship genuinely helped me to make the most of my time in the office, especially since it reassured me while settling in during the first couple of days.

My learning experience was primarily composed of two aspects: the skills I practiced through the tasks assigned to me, as well as being exposed to the workings of WHO more generally. I have particularly enjoyed the wide variety of projects I was involved in, even if on the margins, as this made me truly feel part of the team and process. Although  the  scope  of  my  assignment  changed  slightly  due  to  the  timing  of  my  internship, my main tasks involved background research and reviews on various topics,  on  top  of  helping  with  the  drafting  and  proof-­reading  of  publications,  or  compiling data when necessary.

Beyond the work with my team, I was offered plenty of opportunities relating to WHO’s work more broadly. One particular highlight was attending a training on Health Equity, initiated by the National Institute of Public Health in collaboration with partners, under the  leadership  of  the Ministry  of  Health.  Since  this  event  aligned  perfectly  with  my  background and interests, my supervisor and the coordinator from the responsible team  made  it  possible  for  me  to  participate.  As  an  intern,  I  also  gained  access  to  WHO’s eLearning platform, with an abundance of online courses on a broad range of topics. This, too, was an extremely valuable resource.

Paulin was able to experience firsthand the challenges WHO MME face in the field

I have gained an invaluable awareness of the dynamics and intricacies of operating within the UN system. This was possible since my supervisors enabled me to attend a whole  range  of  meetings,  relating,  for  instance,  to  administrative  matters  and  communications. My experience was further helped by the fact that only a year ago Dr Tedros  was  elected  the  new  WHO  Director-­General,  and  so  the  organization  is  undergoing a whole range of transformations. One example of this is witnessing the global initiative to define WHO corporate values.

One aspect of my internship I would like to highlight is the great value of pursuing a placement in a country office. This is a unique opportunity, as most internships are based in the headquarters in Geneva. There are certainly advantages in having a large pool of other interns around, however I think these are matched, at the very least, by the benefits of gaining exposure to the country level. Personally, I believe this provides a much deeper insight into the implementation of WHO’s recommendations and the challenges faced in the field. This does include being faced with the reality of extensive duty travel within the teams, however, this itself provided me with a better appreciation of what to expect from employment with WHO. This being said, my supervisors were extremely good at supporting me remotely.

‘the guidance I received has influenced me profoundly’

All in all, what surprised me most was the way the people in my office approached me and their sense of obligation to me as an intern. Both in-­ and outside of my team, my colleagues made a significant effort to get to know me, listen to me and provide me with as much advice as possible. Not a single time was I turned down when asking to meet over lunch or coffee, and the guidance I received has influenced me profoundly. Being able to engage with so many interesting people was an immense privilege; the diversity  of  backgrounds  and  outlooks  is  simply  unmatched  by  anything  I  have  experienced elsewhere.

On the whole, I could not have hoped for a more enriching and enjoyable experience than with the WHO MME Team. I would strongly encourage anyone with an interest in public and global health, as well as in international development more broadly, to apply to the Cambridge Global Health Scheme.

You can read about other students’ experiences on the Cambridge Global Health Scheme on the Careers Service website.

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