Penn State students earn fourth place in global health competition

Tracy Cox
April 15, 2021

HERSHEY, Pa. — An interdisciplinary team of Penn State students placed fourth in the 2021 Emory Morningside Global Health Case Competition on March 20. Penn State was one of 52 universities worldwide to compete in this year’s challenge, which focused on implementing a COVID-19 vaccination plan.

The competition, hosted online by the Emory Global Health Institute, illustrated the complexities surrounding COVID-19 vaccine distribution efforts across the globe. Each team had to present a tailored-specific plan for one of four countries: Bangladesh, Brazil, Japan or Nigeria. Judges awarded prizes to the top six teams.  

Penn State’s Emma Baker, Brian Drury, Laura Guay, Krista Hartmann, Savanna Ledford and Xingyan Wang outlined how to overcome vaccine hesitancy, ensure equity and improve distribution in Nigeria.

“Pushing past your comfort zone is where you see yourself grow, and this experience did just that,” said Ledford, the team’s captain and a doctor of public health student. “Even though my team and I only had a few months to work together, I have developed a stronger sense of community and passion for public health.”

Their winning presentation depicted ways to distribute the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine using Nigeria-based technology, such as solar-powered cold boxes, and boost immunization rates by collaborating with community health care workers and religious leaders. The plan incorporated using a multimedia campaign for education and drones to aid in distribution.

“I found this year’s competition particularly impactful because of its integration of the current COVID-19 vaccination efforts and its reflection of real-world problem-solving,” said Baker, a fourth-year medical student from Penn State College of Medicine.

A panel of public health experts evaluated the creativity, feasibility and design of each team’s vaccination implementation program. Then, judges narrowed it down to six teams to compete in the final round. For this phase, teams were presented with a twist: How social media can contribute to misinformation about the vaccine. Teams had to adjust their final presentations to address this new challenge.

“We only had one hour to incorporate the new twist of the case into our solution and present it to the judges,” said Wang, a doctoral student in biostatistics from the Department of Public Health Sciences. “This experience has expanded my understanding of public health topics. I really enjoyed the process of seeing the growth of our idea piece-by-piece, step-by-step.”

In the end, Duke Kunshan University, a Chinese-American partnership of Duke University and Wuhan University, presented the first-place plan. In addition to Penn State, the winning teams were:

  • Second place: Yeshiva University, in partnership with Albert Einstein College of Medicine and City University of New York’s School of Public Health
  • Third place: University of Pittsburgh
  • Fifth place: Brown University
  • Sixth place: University of Texas Southwestern

“I am grateful that many faculty and staff put a lot of time and effort to organize the team, coach practice sessions and offer encouragement,” said Wenke Hwang, director of the Penn State Master of Public Health Program. “Throughout the process, the student case competition truly amplifies the values, as well as the challenges, of interprofessional collaboration in searching and planning for evidence-based responses to address global crises.”

The relevance of this year’s competition shaped the learning experience for team members. Several mentioned how the global health challenge will help prepare them for future careers.

“There are a ton of factors to consider, from cultural and political differences to basic logistics, and this experience showed me how critical it is to customize solutions for each country’s specific challenges,” said Hartmann, a first-year medical student. “I feel confident that I could apply the skills and knowledge I’ve gained through this experience to a real-world situation.”

“This experience emphasized the importance of taking an interdisciplinary approach to global health challenges,” said Guay, an undergraduate student at University Park majoring in biobehavioral health and French and Francophone studies.

This marks the fourth consecutive year that Penn State participated in the challenge, and the first time the University placed among the winners.

“We have been fortunate to have attracted talented, enthusiastic and hard-working students to compete in this annual international case competition,” said Kristin Sznajder, associate director of international initiatives. “Penn State applauds this hard-earned victory four years in the making.”

”We celebrate our strong partnerships across the University and the students participating in this highly esteemed competition,” said Julie Lentes, manager of the Public Health Sciences Global Health Program and the team’s mentor. “I’ve witnessed our team develop their confidence and expand their knowledge to be able to successfully present an innovative global health proposition. I look forward to seeing what they’ll accomplish throughout their careers.”

“There is a real difference between learning about global health issues and implementing a realistic solution to a problem,” Drury said. “As someone passionate about the intersection of global health and medicine throughout medical school, it was a perfect way to culminate my time at Penn State.”

Click here for a closer look at Penn State Public Health Sciences’ global health offerings.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 15, 2021