Gwendolyn Lee '12 and Alexandria Lee '14

Gwendolyn Lee '12 and Alexandria Lee '14

When the COVID-19 pandemic came to the U.S., sisters Gwendolyn and Alexandria combined their interdisciplinary healthcare knowledge and tapped into their graduate school network, creating Students vs. Pandemic, a group where students from diverse fields can connect, collaborate, and empower rising young leaders to combat the humanitarian crisis.

Gwendolyn Lee '12 and Alexandria Lee '14

When the COVID-19 pandemic came to the U.S., sisters Gwendolyn and Alexandria combined their interdisciplinary healthcare knowledge and tapped into their graduate school network, creating Students vs. Pandemic, a group where students from diverse fields can connect, collaborate, and empower rising young leaders to combat the humanitarian crisis.

Can you share about your experience in healthcare?

AL: The late part of my experiences in healthcare have been driven from a research-based lens. Thanks to Marlborough's Honors Research program, we had both been connected to incredible labs and research mentors at CHLA and UCLA, and so by the time that we entered college, we didn't really need freshman and sophomore year to get an idea of what we were passionate about. I spent my first two years at UCLA conducting bench research studying women undergoing IVF treatment, but what really sparked my passion were my interactions with patients who opened up about their experiences as I took informed consent and background information. This, in combination with my anthropology studies, led me to explore beyond the bench. I joined a biological anthropology lab that studied the longitudinal effects of immigrant mothers' cultural experiences throughout and after pregnancy on their health and their children's health. Beyond the numbers from the biological samples we collected, the stories they shared opened my eyes to the multitude of factors that impact their health and wellbeing, and that of their generations to come. As I planned for life after college, I realized that I wanted to better understand the intersections between health and the carious exposures and experience they encounter. I decided to pursue an MS in epidemiology, and am incredibly grateful to have had the resources and professors to prepare me for a transition into life during a pandemic. I never imagined that what I learned would become so relevant. Since graduation, I've been working at the LA County Department of Public Health, approaching healthcare from a very new lens as I work on vaccine rollout projects and outbreak management.

GL: Marlborough's Honors Research program first introduced me to healthcare, as well. The 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic had just swept through the world, and I was working in a lab studying the influenza virus to identify viral targets for future vaccines. This opportunity at such an early stage in my academic career jump-started my interest in public health. I worked in pediatric injury prevention at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, served on my township's Board of health when another infectious disease outbreak swept through my college town, and am currently pursuing an MD/MPP. These experiences have shown me the need for and challenges in implementing policy and healthcare outside the hospital's walls. We need protocols for emergencies, from multi-casualty incidents to pandemics. We also need compassionate healthcare. I particularly remember a patient in the ICU, who was intubated and unresponsive when I started the service. His family hung family photos all over his room so when he opened his eyes he would be surrounded by loved ones, especially given restricted visitor policies during COVID-19. It is humbling and a precious opportunity to be able to support our patients through medical care and also support our patients' families, giving updates, working through their worries together, and at times being an extension of family to be by the patient's bedside when they can't be.

What is Students vs. Pandemics and why did you create this group? 

One year ago we received concerned texts from family about something called COVID-19. At the time ti was still an international news story and felt distant and intangible. When our public health professors decided to stay home for fear of the virus, we realized this virus could impact us. Soon after, an outbreak occurred in our own community, students were evacuated from campus, and a state of emergency was declared in our state. 

At that time, our friends were all discussing the pandemic. Since we were in different graduate programs, our friends from the public health, public policy, and medical schools were all voicing different concerns, solutions, and approaches to address the pandemic. From talking with our friends, we realized that there was a significant opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration, particularly amount students and young leaders. We began as a small group working to educate, advocate, and serve. Students vs. Pandemics is a catalyst network solving time-sensitive humanitarian crises by empowering rising leaders and promoting interdisciplinary collaboration. Founded at Harvard University to tackle COVID-19, SvP gained over 100 members within a week of its launch in March and now engages hundreds of students across the nation. We disseminate rapidly updated information through public health blog posts and lecture series, donate PPE and hygiene products to under-resourced hospitals and communities, and author policy memos for state legislators.

When we founded it, we decided to name ourselves Students vs. Pandemics rather than Students vs. COVID-19, because we always felt that the problems that we saw in terms of siloed academic communities would continue to exist, that the need for this interdisciplinary collaboration and response would continue to exist. So, we named ourselves Students vs. Pandemics to address any kind of pandemic in the future. But as our organization has evolved, we realized that there are so many social challenges and issues that require this interdisciplinary response. And students are perfectly positioned to address these. We hope to do so as we transition from Students vs. Pandemics to be "Students vs" in the future - to tackle any social pandemic.

We could never have imagined Students vs. Pandemics would achieve what it has today and evolve into the large family it is today. That's all thanks to SvP's members. We're grateful to have met hundreds of students even during self-isolation. And we're grateful for their leadership, commitment to service, and passion and spirit in uplifting each other and our communities even during self-isolation and social distancing. 

What have you done to prevent burnout and to take care of yourselves through the pandemic?

We were both really lucky to have always had each other, family, and friends close by. As we finished our programs in Boston, even though classes were online, my friends and I always took advantage of long Zoom calls as we studied and encouraged each other's progress on our theses. The two of us had our own fun and laughs over movies, homemade boba, and cooking nights. And after our graduations, our plans/programs both aligned back home with family in LA.

One thing that really has prevented burnout since coming home is cultivating our family vegetable and fruit garden project. Whenever we get some free time in our schedules, we love working with our grandparents and mom to get some fresh air and sun in. With so much of our lives now spent on screens and indoors, it's been really heartwarming and exciting to be able to watch seedlings or the roots/ends of store-bought vegetables we've replanted grow from little buds to being harvested and cooked into some of our daily meals. 

How did Marlborough prepare you for your work in healthcare?

We always think back on our Marlborough experience with so much appreciation and fond remembrance. It was at Marlborough that we first discovered all our various interests and passions that shaped our later academic pursuits, from joining debate, o-founding the robotics team, conducting lab research at CHLA and UCLA through the Honors Research program, and serving our community through the Marlborough Student Charitable Fund (MSCF), which is now known as Violets' Giving Circle. Looking back, we really got such a head start to college and our career path because of the countless opportunities at Marlborough. We gained such a broad and strong foundation to learn more than just what's in the books, but also what it means to be part of a larger community and give back.

And so now when we come back full circle to March 2020, it was with our passion for interdisciplinary practice, solutions, and change founded in our education and experiences at Marlborough, that carried through to college and grad school, ultimately allowing us to found Students vs. Pandemics.

What advice do you have for current students interested in pursuing healthcare and health initiatives? 

Keep an open mind because there are many ways to impact individual and population health, whether through clinical care, patient advocacy, public health policy, and health technology innovation We're both so envious of and inspired by young students now. While we were already so lucky to be able to explore different fields and participate in various activities, we can see how much the world is becoming more and more connected across all disciplines. And the opportunities to study those intersections are growing. Take advantage of the opportunities to pursue interdisciplinary tracks, and hold onto curiosity and creativity because that's where the innovative solutions we're all looking for stems from.

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