Sappho Gilbert, MPH ’14

Reflections: From the Canadian Arctic to Southern Africa

During some of the quieter moments I am able to enjoy alone each week, I often like to reflect on where I am – in my career and in life – versus where I was, say, one month ago (in a research meeting in Iqaluit). One year ago (working at a hospital in Washington, DC). Two years ago (coding in lab for an epidemiology and biostatistics class). Ten years ago (attending a club meeting in high school). Never has this mental exercise been more interesting – and ever unpredictable – than my time during and since graduate school at The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice!

Earlier this year, after spending time post-graduation in Bosnia and Herzegovina working on humanitarian civic assistance programs, I was awarded a Lombard '53 Public Service Fellowship by Dartmouth College's Dickey Center for International Understanding together with the Tucker Foundation.

For my fellowship, I designed (and was funded to conduct) a mixed methods community mental health study to identify tools used by young Inuit adults to sustain their mental wellness. I conducted interviews with residents in three communities in Nunavut, Canada – a territory with a tragically high suicide rate.

Throughout the project’s development and execution, I worked in close partnership with the Embrace Life Council (a local suicide prevention organization in Nunavut) and was closely mentored by Professor Louise Davies (my qualitative research methods professor at The Dartmouth Institute) and Wayne State University Professor Michael Kral (a recognized authority in the field of Inuit psychology). The goal of my research is to inform clear, evidence-based public policy and resource allocation for more effective mental health care delivery that will tackle the circumpolar territory’s suicide crisis.

While I was in Nunavut, my work was featured by various media outlets and Dartmouth; the latter was always, of course, the most special to me. Following my CBC radio interview in mid-August, Dartmouth’s home page and the VOX Weekly included a small piece highlighting my then-ongoing fieldwork. That radio interview led to another CBC news piece on World Suicide Prevention Day (known in Nunavut as "Embrace Life Day") that aired on TV and was published on the web as an article later picked up by MSN Health & Wellness. It was exciting to get the word out about our study's novelty: focusing on mental wellness and resilience – rather than illness and suicide – in order to design more effectual wellness programs and social initiatives. It was especially thrilling to be in Nunavut in the run up to Canada’s federal elections this October, as many residents were openly debating political issues and challenging the status quo around mental wellness in and outside of the territory.

Upon my return to the States, I began a new, full-time position as Project Director at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. In this role, I collaborate with four principal investigators and their research teams at universities here in the U.S. as well as with international partners in southern Africa on a multiyear, multinational qualitative research project.

By conducting in-depth interviews with everyday women as well as ethics-focused consultations with experts working at the intersection of HIV/AIDS and pregnancy, our study team aims to recommend clear ethical and regulatory guidelines for the conduct of morally complicated HIV research (in particular the inclusion of pregnant women in clinical trials, cohort studies, etc.) that is critical to the prevention and treatment of the disease in women. I am excited to work in several countries in southern Africa and to contribute to the academic space shared by public health and ethics.

It is hard for me to believe that this journey from The Dartmouth Institute – to the Arctic, now toward the Antarctic – would have been possible without The Dartmouth Institute and Dartmouth College. To the Dickey Center, the Institute of Arctic Studies, and my cherished mentors at The Dartmouth Institute – Professor Davies, Professor Robin Larson, Professor Bill Nelson, and many, many others – thank you for your incredible support, time and generosity.  To my fellow alumni – keep changing the world and never forget our shared public health roots two years ago: enjoying New England’s colorful fall; relishing in an intellectually concentrated, endlessly stimulating environment; and building lifelong connections and friendships with one another.

knowledge informs change