When five UC Berkeley students assembled to enter the 2015 Emory Global Health Case Competition—the first time a Berkeley team had entered—they weren’t expecting to win. Nonetheless, they took the top prize at the prestigious international competition, which aims to promote awareness of and develop innovative solutions for 21st century global health issues. Twenty-four multidisciplinary teams from universities around the world competed in the challenge on Saturday, March 28, at the Rollins School of Public Health in Atlanta.
“The fact that they placed first among over two dozen elite universities in the United States and abroad is a testament to the innovative culture at Berkeley,” says Phuoc Le, assistant professor in the Interdisciplinary MPH Program at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, who served as a the team’s faculty adviser.
Rosheen Birdie, an undergraduate student majoring in public health and molecular and cell biology, was team captain and initially reached out to staff and faculty to find out how she would go about forming a team. She was put in touch with Hildy Fong, executive director of the UC Berkeley Center for Global Public Health, who connected her with Chris Andersen, a UC Berkeley School of Public Health student in the MS program in epidemiology who was also interested in the Emory competition. Birdie and Andersen then recruited more team members, using what Andersen describes as “a snowball approach.” Eventually, Asha Choudhury, a student in the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program; Jee Yun (Ashley) Kim, a Molecular and Cell Biology undergrad; and Richa Gujarati, an MBA student at the Haas School of Business, all joined the team.
“Our team represented more academic disciplines than some of our competitors, which I think gave us an advantage,” says Andersen. “This translated into ‘constructive friction’ between team members during our discussions on the case. Ultimately our differing perspectives produced a better product than any one of us could have come up with alone.”
The team prepared by reviewing cases from previous Emory competitions and going over proposed solutions. Professor Le advised them on case format and presentation details. They also worked on fundraising for the five-person trip to Atlanta.
“Addressing global health challenges in the ‘real world’ requires collaboration, commitment, drive, and intelligence. This Berkeley team embodied all these traits from the moment they decided to participate, and they were tenacious and determined in preparing for the competition every step of the way—even when facing various logistical setbacks,” says Fong. “If this winning Berkeley team is a glimpse of the upcoming cadre of global health professionals, then our future is in good hands.”
The team received their global health case one week before the competition, finding out that they would be developing a strategy to reduce gun violence in Honduras. “I thought it seemed like a difficult problem to solve in a week,” Andersen recalls.
“The case subject was definitely surprising, but in a good way,” says Kim. “It challenged us to address gun violence as a multi-faceted public health issue and target its root causes. It was a great learning experience.”
Choudhury was impressed with the case because it was open to many different approaches. Birdie agrees. “It was a case with a lot of clues as to strategies you could take, but there wasn’t one obviously correct solution,” she says. “I’d recommend that future teams read it closely when they are preparing for the competition.”
After a week of preparation, the team traveled to Atlanta, where they had an intense day to finalize their strategy and presentation—working from noon on Friday to 2:30 am on Saturday. The next morning, they made their last edits at 7:35 am, turned in their flash drive, and waited to make their 15-minute presentation followed by a 10-minute question-and-answer session with a distinguished panel of judges, including Rafael Flores-Ayala, team lead of the International Micronutrient Malnutrition Prevention and Control Program at the CDC and Asha Varghese, director of the Global Health Portfolio at the GE Foundation.
The Berkeley team’s strategy was titled “Breaking the Cycle of Violence” and involved a three-pronged approach that included the promotion of public safety, job production and economic development, and community building. The team segmented the drivers of violence into macro (lack of opportunity, poor education, U.S. demand for cocaine), meso (drug flow, corruption, culture of violence), and micro (access to firearms, conflict over territory) levels. They also categorized their strategies using these levels—for example, a cash transfer to incentivize education was at the macro level, while trading guns anonymously for cash was at the micro level.
“One of the most challenging aspects was getting all the relevant points into a 15-minute presentation,” says Birdie, “and ensuring that our solution was realistic, sustainable, and scalable.”
After finishing in first place in their 6-team round one, the UC Berkeley team continued on to the 4-team finals, where they gave their presentation to all eight case competition judges and in front of many of the students from other universities. For winning the competition, they received a $6,000 award.
“One of the most rewarding aspects of the competition was learning how to work as a multidisciplinary team,” says Kim. “It was amazing to progress from each one of us having different ideas to forming one cohesive solution.”
Second place went to the team from the University of Kentucky, also first-time participants. The University of Miami team won third place, and Northwestern University earned Honorable Mention. Fourteen waitlisted teams competed in a video competition using the same case as the on-campus participants—with the University of Minnesota taking top honors.
Visit the Emory Global Health Institute website for more information about its global health case competitions.
By Linda Anderberg