If I were to sum up this first day of work in two words it would be demanding and incredible. Although they certainly expect a high level of work from their interns here at the WHO, the work has also come with amazing experience unparalleled at any previous point of my life. But first, more information on my settling in and leading up to this first day of work.
I flew into Geneva this past Sunday and was immediately struck by the international vibe of the city. Leaving the airport, I sat down in a bus filled with what seemed representatives of each continent of the globe: burkas, hijabs, African traditional dress all were represented in their diverse glory. As a city that houses 23 headquarters of organizations including the UN’s European and Healthcare Operations, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without borders), the Red Cross, and the World Trade Organization (amongst others), Geneva has been called the most diverse city in the world–and with reason. Physically, Geneva is a striking city, a canvas of old Swiss buildings of classic French Architecture perched on the banks of Lac Leman, a crystal blue lake fed from the glaciers of Mont Blanc. Geneva is right against the border with France (it’s about a 15 minute run for me to get into France), already making it an intrinsically international city then infused with the languages and cultures of hundreds of countries as its inhabitants go to and fro. I understand why the UN chose Geneva as a base; it’s extremely well organized, neat, and obligatorily neutral (in typical Swiss fashion), providing a stable base from which to center the operations of these many different international organizations. The only main drawback (in my opinion) is the cost of living here in Geneva: it’s the second most expensive city in the world, which makes it financially impossible for many individuals from developing nations even to visit. More on that later.
After arriving in Geneva, I took a 15-minute bus ride to my flat, which is about 5 minutes walking from the main United Nations building and 20 minutes walking to the World Health Organization. I got extremely lucky; I’m staying with someone who does environmental policy consulting work for the UN (my landlord for the summer) who is a kind man from Brazil and one other WHO intern who is from China/Canada interning in the healthcare economics part of the WHO. After meeting my landlord, I unpacked and collapsed, as I had a long day of travel.
The first day here was very much of a settling day. I was pleasantly surprised that the Monday after I flew in was a public holiday, so I took the day to do little errands (getting groceries, a bus pass, etc.) and also exploring the city. Geneva is small but very well organized, and is more or less clustered into an old town center with an old cathedral, with international organizations that branch out on either side. It’s easy to navigate and most things are within walking (and definitely within bus) distance. It wasn’t the worst way to spend a day and I felt I got my bearings on this puzzling little piece of Swiss/international fusion.
The next day (Tuesday) was my first day at the WHO and it was both exciting and full. In the morning I got on my suit and started walking to the WHO, pinching myself because I’ve dreamt about working at the WHO for years and years. Finally, the building came into view: the U-shaped headquarters building, ringed by flags and literally shining in the early Swiss morning light. I soon walked through the doors and it honestly felt unreal, as again I’ve dreamt of this moment for more time than I can articulate.
This summer, I will be working for the Experts Network response team, a team within the Infectious Hazards Management department that helps coordinate activities of response to epidemics to make responses more efficient and effective. The team was born out of the Ebola outbreak of 2013-2014, when the WHO was heavily criticized for its long response time. As a result, the mission of the team is to integrate many of the programs such as clinical response, lab response, and logistics response, which often haven’t been coordinated in the past and led to significant time lags. The leader of this team is a scientist that led global response to H1N1, so a high profile human being–hard to believe she’s my advisor for the summer!
After I walked in, I sat down with my advisor and we spoke about my background and expectations of the internship. From the beginning, she made it clear that expectations were going to be high. She made it clear that “here at the Experts Network, we need our interns” and that I would be expected to work hard and produce quality work while here. However, at the same time she was quite supportive and said that they were here in order for interns to be successful as well.
Immediately afterwards, we participated in a team journal club on a recent case of Zika virus that seemed to suggest that Zika could be sexually transmitted. After a short discussion, she turned to me and basically asked, “could you do a lit review of evidence for and against the transmission of Zika through semen? We need to make a policy recommendation on this subject and this is important to us.” I said yes, and spent the next 24 hours looking through scores of studies looking at the evidence for and against the sexual transmission of Zika. It was fascinating but also a bit terrifying because these publications will likely be reviewed quickly by staff and then published, and have the potential to steer patient treatment globally in a very real way. It’s been a great exercise in academic writing and policymaking, if a bit terrifying.
My team is comprised of my head boss, an infectious disease consultant, and two other interns, one working on Yellow Fever from China/Vancouver and another working on Ebola education resources from Toyko. We went to lunch together and they immediately welcomed me into the group, which was fantastic. It’s truly a privilege to get to know and work alongside those from so many diverse backgrounds, all inspiring in their own ways.
Finally, I took an intern tour (which luckily happened to be on Tuesdays!) of the WHO Headquarters, which was fascinating. We had a chance to walk through the outbreak room, where reports are given three times a week on disease outbreaks and press conferences happen in the case of disasters, as well as the general board room, the library, and the cafes. The WHO HQ is quite large, holding about 2500 full time employees and many consultants and makes up a whole campus. It was fascinating to get the inside scoop on this facility that has impacted healthcare initiatives all throughout the world in such intricate ways.
Sorry for the loquacious first post but some (cough cough my mom) are interested in the details. I’ll try to keep my posts more brief from here. Basically, already working on the first publication, expectations are high, but meeting fascinating people from all over the world and I love it so far! We’ll see what happens the rest of the week!