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Building Relationships in Public Health Leads to Greater Global Good

The American Public Health Association (APHA) Conference is among the largest gatherings of public health professionals in the United States. With more than 13,000 attendees annually, I never would have guessed that a chance meeting at the conference would lead to my contribution to real change in the world.

Last November at my first APHA Conference, I was an eager public health PhD candidate at UNC-Chapel Hill contemplating my next career move. I made my way to the RTI International booth with business cards in hand and an elevator pitch I had memorized on the plane ride to San Diego.

It was at this meeting that Venita Embry, a UNC classmate and now colleague at RTI, introduced me to Dr. Wendee Wechsberg. What started out as a casual conversation about the innovative research from the RTI Global Gender Center, and her own body of work—focused on the nexus of HIV, substance use, and gender-based violence—led to an interview back home in North Carolina, and an offer for a postdoctoral position.

This year at my second APHA Conference, everything came full circle as I presented my qualitative and mixed methods findings from implementation science research with women living with HIV in South Africa. I am focused on the sustainability of the Women’s Health CoOp, an evidence-based intervention which addresses substance use, sexual risk, gender-based violence, and antiretroviral adherence in South African health facilities. I also had the privilege of attending presentations from the Substance Use Gender and Applied Research (SUGAR) Program. Dr. Wechsberg described her impactful work focusing on the challenges to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) implementation for HIV prevention for adolescent girls and young women in South Africa. I also learned about Dr. Yukiko Washio important research related to breastfeeding and maternal sleep quality.

In between sessions at this year’s conference, I took some time to represent RTI to professionals and students who were in the same place I was last year, and it was a blast! I wanted to pay it forward and give these attendees a way to meet-and-greet with RTI staff the way I did just last year. Inviting attendees to be quizzed on different RTI research topics, including women’s health, was fun but also really helpful to learn the breadth of work. The atmosphere provided a warm, fun, and engaging way to learn, but also to network and share my journey from student to post-doc at RTI with other attendees.

At conferences as large as APHA, it can be a challenge to make personal connections and to feel like these connections will make a difference in your work. However, the conversations I had both this year and last made the conference feel much smaller, and the impact feel bigger.

Attending APHA this year inspired me not only scientifically, but also personally as I built relationships with potential new members of the RTI and public health community.

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Margaret (Waru) Gichane to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.