Gabi's whirlwind of learning, friendship and growth in MSc Public Health for Development

Almost a year has flown by in a whirlwind of deadlines, challenging modules, and the beautiful friendships that form.

Gabi from Timor-Leste, who had worked in public health for over 10 years, reflects on her journey studying MSc Public Health for Development so far - from entering the programme with a wealth of practical experience but a desire for theoretical frameworks, to navigating the challenges and triumphs alongside an incredibly global cohort.
Gabriela Leite Soares (left) with her Personal Tutor & Academic Advisor, Professor Veronique Filippi, at the faculty dinner organised by Goodenough College.

The third term is here. As I prepare for my last term before starting with my summer project, I couldn’t help to reflect on my journey at LSHTM. 

It feels surreal that seven months have flown by. Very soon, we will have completed this term and embark on our summer projects. Some of us will be staying in London to conduct secondary analysis or systematic reviews, while some will be conducting primary data collection in various locations.  

In our recent Friday coffee with our Programme Directors, we shared our thoughts about our learning journey at LSHTM. It felt like a reflection of the last seven months in this programme and in this institution. One of the directors noticed that some of us had started to use past tense in describing our experience at LSHTM despite still being students here. I think we are grappling with the reality that our time here is numbered. This regular Friday coffee for MSc Public Health for Development (PH4D), an informal session with our Programme Directors offers us opportunities to ask questions about modules at LSHTM, bounce ideas about our research questions for the summer projects, and sometimes just ask each other how we are doing. And this moment of togetherness with my peers and Programme Directors is one among many things that I like about our programme.  

Gabi's seminar group for the Health Policy, Process & Power module
Gabi's seminar group for the Health Policy, Process & Power module.

A truly global cohort

I’d heard this uttered by other MSc students: “Studying at LSHTM was a dream come true for me” and this was also the case for me. 

I had been working in public health for nearly ten years before coming to LSHTM. I started working in public health after completing my master’s in Public Administration from Cornell University under the Fulbright Award. Despite having taken some online short courses in global health, I felt that I lacked the conceptual frameworks to link my practical public health experience. Most of my professional experience has been based in my home country, Timor-Leste, a small island nation in Southeast Asia. I felt that without the training in public health, my views and understanding of public health challenges and programming were quite narrow.

This is it! My reaction when reading the description of the Public Health for Development programme. It is designed for mid-level professionals working in the field of public health in low and middle-income countries and to train future public health leaders. My cohort comes from a diverse background: clinicians, nutritionists, researchers, humanitarian workers, policy advisors, public health professionals from around the globe, and we even have a journalist.

A few weeks before orientation, we had a Zoom call with our Programme Directors. Hannah Blencowe, one of the PH4D Programme Directors welcomed us and cautioned a few of us who had planned to juggle between carrying on with our consultancy jobs and full-time students – this programme would be intense. (Spoiler alert: Hannah was right!) And to add to that dynamic: a full-time parent of two children!

Gabi visited Yayoi Kusama's exhibition at the Tate Modern in London.
Gabi visited Yayoi Kusama's exhibition at the Tate Modern in London.

From theory to practice: learning game-changing skills

Coming to LSHTM was a privilege and the modules truly expanded my skillset. Who knew I'd find myself enjoying even the module "Statistics for Epidemiology and Population Health"? I credit the LSHTM statistics module organisers. They made statistics practical, not just memorisation of the formula. We weren't just crunching numbers; we were learning to interpret them – that odd ratio, the 95% confidence interval, the p-value – all became tools to understand public health issues. It was a game-changer!

Our PH4D programme's mandatory sessions every Tuesday fostered a unique sense of community. From sharing our diverse work experiences in the first term to presenting summer project proposals and receiving invaluable feedback from both programme directors and peers, these moments of togetherness were more than just academic exercises. They were celebrations of our individual and collective growth.

Using evidence-based decision-making and allocation of resources is one of the indicators of a well-functioning health system. LSHTM’s emphasis on training us to appraise and critically analyse data while factoring in the social determinants of health has been invaluable.

The academic training here offers essential, yet practical skills to contribute to strengthening health systems and improving health outcomes. I have had the privilege to learn together with some of the most bright-minded and driven people at LSHTM. 

If anyone asked what skills I have acquired from studying at LSHTM? I believe the modules I have taken have helped me to hone my skills in research and making the linkage between theories, evidence, and the context of health systems in developing sound programmes and policy recommendations. 

MSc Public Health for Development 2023/24 cohort in front of LSHTM Keppel Street building.
MSc Public Health for Development 2023/24 cohort in front of the LSHTM Keppel Street building.

Balancing act as a student and a parent

Amidst the demanding academic rigours, the need for a balanced social life, and the unpredictable British weather, we strive to juggle our responsibilities, some of us navigating the additional responsibilities of parenthood while learning to always carry an umbrella before going out, regardless of the weather forecast.  

In my programme, there are three of us who have children under the age of three. It was good because other than discussing assignments and class materials, we often exchanged stories about our little ones’ milestones, the latest hospital visits due to some viral infections, or our favourite bedtime stories. Due to my role as a parent, I rarely joined any social activities organised outside of school hours. However, LSHTM has a relatively small student population. So it is not very hard to meet and make friends through seminars or a random chit-chat while standing in a queue, waiting for your turn to microwave your lunch.

I joined many other student ambassadors to answer questions from prospective students earlier at the Virtual Open Days. I remember going through that experience: all emotions, excitement, anxiety, curiosity, all swirling in one. I realised how quickly time has flown by!

Gabi (right) with her Pentacel group on London Bridge.
Gabi (right) with her Pentacel group on London Bridge.

I look forward to staying in touch with my peers and continuing to learn from each other even long after we complete our MSc here. We've been shoulder-to-shoulder through deadlines – summative assessments, rants over modules that we regret ever taking, LEO forms, literature reviews, and the never-ending list. Caught in the daily grind, it's easy to forget that time marches on. 

When we finish our summer project and graduate, we'll scatter across the globe, this group a reminder of the bonds forged here. Though intense and challenging, this experience has fostered an amazing camaraderie that I'll truly miss.