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MIT Technology Review

A world of differences a bus ride away

Thanks to an innovative IAP program, I got to explore global health issues without leaving Boston.

Photograph of Meghan DavisPhotograph of Meghan Davis
Photograph of Meghan Davis
Courtesy photo

When I started at MIT, I couldn’t wait to learn about and explore other countries and continents. But I soon found a world of cultures to learn from here in Boston.

During my first IAP, I worked as a development intern at Charles River Community Health Center in Allston/Brighton through the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center’s health-care IAP program. As I researched ways for CRCHC to deepen connections to patients and reach a broader population, I got an up-close view of how a community health center serves families and communities. For example, CRCHC has a community health worker who speaks Haitian Creole, drawing Haitian patients from around the state; centers catering to Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants can be found in Chinatown, and an East Boston clinic focuses on Central and South American patients. I was astounded, not only by how many different immigrant communities Boston has, but also by the differences in their health-care needs.

As a black person in America, I already knew about the unjust nature of the American health-care system. But witnessing the extent of the problem firsthand through IAP prompted me to take Research Methods in Global Health and Development (11.134) my sophomore fall. Last January I got to apply what I learned there in the pediatric autism program at Boston Medical Center, New England’s largest safety net hospital.

I spent the coldest, darkest, and worst month of the year (in my personal Southern opinion) running from New House to 84 Mass. Ave. to catch the bus to BMC. It was amazing to see so many types of people there—young, old, homeless, addicted, seriously ill, and healthy but needing a checkup. Most BMC patients are considered minorities, and many are immigrants; they speak a multitude of languages.

Working on the autism program’s teams doing data analysis, assessing immigrant families’ needs, and developing the annual report and fund--raising strategies, I learned a lot about autism. Before I started, I envisioned the typical patient on the autism spectrum as a young Caucasian male. But I learned that BMC’s kid-centered autism program also consults with other BMC departments about working with adults. And when I analyzed the program’s data, I found patients of all races and ethnicities, from places like Brazil, Haiti, El Salvador, and Cape Verde. They all have unique needs and contexts, and often their families need help overcoming language barriers and determining which programs they need and qualify for.

As I shadowed patients in the clinic, I saw how overwhelming it can be to manage their care. I observed a young black girl—similar to some of my cousins—undergoing a series of tests to assess her autism. Her guardian, who would follow up with her school, seemed so weighed down by her responsibility that I was moved to tears.

At “grand rounds,” I got to hear clinical staff discuss interesting medical cases and phenomena. One session focused on racial and socioeconomic disparities in children’s health care; another on the impact of pornography on adolescent health. Such talks inspired me to declare a minor in Course 11 (Urban Studies and Planning), where I started a project about the higher risk for cardiovascular disease among urban black women, and to increase my involvement with the student-led sex education group Pleasure@MIT, where I gave a presentation on pornography and adolescent health this fall.

Getting to collaborate with the dozen or so fellow MIT students in the program was a bonus; as we ate lunch, we talked about such things as physical and mental health issues in Alaska, agriculture and chicken farming in Arkansas, and health care in Ethiopia.

My IAP experiences helped me understand how technology, policy, and planning intersect to affect the lives of real people. I learned that the research we do at MIT, whether it’s understanding how the brain works or designing technologies for people with disabilities, has the potential to make a difference. I also realized that MIT and other institutions produce things that can cause harm, such as unaffordable technologies that exacerbate the wealth gap. My ability to empathize with people from all walks of life has really grown. That’s essential to my personal development—and my ability to be an engineer for a better world.