Mariam Noorulhuda has seen health disparities up close in the developing world, particularly in Afghanistan, where she interned at a hospital in Kabul last summer.
“There was a shortage of trained health-care professionals, especially women, poor facility conditions, and insecurity,” she said. “Our hospital was minutes away from multiple bombings.”
Noorulhuda is a rising senior and one of six Stanford undergraduates chosen for the inaugural class of Stanford Health Policy Undergraduate Research Fellows. From a variety of disciplines, they will spend this summer partnered with SHP faculty to work on research projects. The students were chosen for their desire to blend health policy with their own undergraduate studies.
Noorulhuda’s family first fled Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion in 1979. They made it to a refugee camp in neighboring Pakistan, where an infant brother died for lack of health care. They returned to Kabul after the Soviets left in 1991, but the country fell back into civil war.
That is when she lost another brother, as health-care infrastructure was demolished after much of the capital was destroyed in bombings. When the Taliban targeted her father for his resistance efforts, they fled again and were granted asylum in the United States in 1997. Though raised in the Bay Area, many family members remain in Afghanistan.
“Much of my family has been affected by the brutal impact that war has on health — not entirely through bombs and bullets per say — but through indirect effects like displacement and virtually nonexistent health systems,” said Noorulhuda, a history major with a minor in human rights.
She will work with SHP’s Eran Bendavid, an infectious diseases physician and associate professor of medicine who focuses on the impact of health policies and outcomes in developing countries. He is the fellowship coordinator for this inaugural summer program.
Impact of Health Policy
"There is a growing recognition that health policy impacts just about every facet of human experience and well-being, and we see students picking up on that earlier and earlier,” said Bendavid. “The scholarship at SHP — from the effects of gun ownership or armed conflict to quality of care and guideline development — is an exceptional environment for gaining experience and a deep-dive into health policy research."
The fellowships were made possible with generous support from Stanford political scientist Scott Sagan, and his wife Sujitpan Bao Lamsam, vice chairman of Kasikornbank in Thailand. Sagan is a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation who focuses on nuclear strategy, the ethics of war and the safety of hazardous technology.
“One of the great strengths of Stanford is the opportunity for undergraduates to get deeply involved in faculty research projects,” said Sagan, whose daughter Charlotte Sagan (BA, `15) was a research assistant in health policy while at Stanford. “We wanted to help create such opportunities for future students.”
Tiffany Liu just finished her freshman year and has yet to declare her major, though she’s thinking symbolic systems, the study of human-computer interaction.
“Both fields incorporate so many diverging perspectives and methods in order to solve salient issues,” said Liu, who will work with Jason Wang, an associate professor of pediatrics who looks at the use of innovative technology to improve quality of care and health outcomes.
“I’m eager to engage in health policy research through a mix of technical and non-technical methods — we can process and analyze data in so many more interesting ways using computers, and yet we can’t ever lose the humanistic aspect of health initiatives,” Liu said.
Nikhil Shankar, also a rising senior, is an economics major. He jumped at the health policy fellowships because he believes applied economics can have “real-world impact.”
He will be working with SHP’s Grant Miller, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and director of the Stanford King Center on Global Development. They will examine the impact of population policy on child health outcomes by gender in China.
“Effective health policy, informed by sound research, plays a vital role in ensuring that every child has the capabilities needed to achieve their potential,” Shankar said. “I hope to be a small part of the global community of researchers, policymakers and advocates working to ensure equitable and affordable health care for all.”
Health-care inequality driven by factors beyond the control of individuals is something that troubles Andrea Banuet, a human biology major and another a rising senior.
“Factors such as socioeconomic status, age, ethnic and racial backgrounds should not determine the type of care an individual can attain — but the really sad reality is that in many parts of our country, it does.”
She believes that policy informed by research has the power to combat institutional biases and promote change in health-care accessibility. She will be working Kathryn M. McDonald, executive director of CHP/PCOR, an expert on health-care quality and patient safety.
Conrad Milhaupt is another rising senior with a double major in economics and public policy.
“I have a passion for the intersection of economics, politics and policy, with a particular focus on health and environmental policy,” said Milhaupt, who will work with SHP’s Jay Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine and economics.
Milhaupt took Bhattacharya’s health economics class in his sophomore year and became intrigued by the discrepancies in costs for health services with only marginal differences in outcomes. He is particularly interested in health care in rural America and ways that changes to our public-private insurance mix may improve access to care and help manage costs.
“Ultimately, I am driven to study this topic by my belief that health care is a human right and that health is an integral aspect of every individual’s life,” he said.
Calvin Tolbert, with funding from the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, will work with Eric Sun, an economist and assistant professor of anesthesiology who researches consolidation in physician markets and the economics of pain treatments.
Tolbert is a rising junior majoring in economics and classics, with a minor in mathematics.
“The thing that initially drew me to economics was the fact that it was both math-intensive and pertinent to public policy, which is a keen interest of mine,” he said.
He will be working on a project that looks at physician compensation across countries and the wide gap in costs and access to medical care and drugs.
“This is an area that first caught my eye, when I read accounts of medical tourism in the news, including both people from developing countries who come to America for serious procedures and Americans who visit other countries to receive treatment due to the expense of medical care in this country.”