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MPH Global Public Health, Tunisian Professor, COVID-19

Why MPH: Coming to the USA as a recipient of the USAID scholarship (1990-1994), I earned the BS in Computer Engineering at Penn State University. Becoming awarded the Brush Fellowship (1994-1995) enabled me to earn the MS at the same institution. I earned my PHD in Computer Science in 2002 at the University of Maryland, College Park and then accepted a position as a senior research scientist in Jersey City, New Jersey. I very much enjoyed doing cutting-edge research on facial recognition, in particular, working at a leading biometrics company. Riding high on the perks of New York City, I spent hours gazing at my postcard-like view of the Manhattan skyline.

Since that time, my concern for social issues and especially public health has grown, and I have found myself now for some time with an incremental desire to put my solid foundation in Big Data to work on behalf of the needs of global health campaigns oriented towards helping people and systems in the Developing World.

During my graduate study I served as a teaching assistant for four semesters; discovering that I had a knack for explaining complex concepts in layman’s terms, receiving very positive feedback from students. Thus, I decided to become a teacher as well as a researcher and my first academic position was at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, not long after finishing my PHD. Over the next 17 years, I would go on to teach in 5 additional countries, mostly in the Middle East and North Africa.

The Covid-19 pandemic is the primary motor of my adoption of the cause of global health as my own, making it the center of my professional identity. During the first few weeks of the first lockdown, I recall being still under the naïve impression that this was all temporary and that we would all go back to our normal lives soon, after all, we thought, science has progressed so much and we surely must be able to quickly contain this ‘flu-like’ disease. The next few months would build up into a gradual my ‘ahaa’ realization of how very vulnerable all of us are to outbreaks of infectious disease on a global scale. Perhaps the single scariest aspect of this for me is my personal conviction that the emergence of viruses is exacerbated by man-made climate change, most unfortunately advancing with a rapidity that has long been represented in statistical models only with respect to worst-case scenarios.

Why Global Health Concentration: While I have always felt very strongly about issues of social justice and equality, as I enter middle-age, I find myself increasingly motivated by moral concerns, contemplating very basic questions as to why there is so much poverty and suffering in the world, with an ever-widening gap between the haves and have nots. I am particularly concerned with the way that this gap is being exacerbated further by the pandemic. After nearly two decades working to advance communication technology generally speaking, I now seek to focus my abilities on global health, where I am convinced that I will be able to do the greatest good for the balance of my professional lifetime. I now want to focus on those skills that I have developed which are most relevant for international healthcare development and awareness. With more than 20 years of experience in applying machine learning (or what is now more generally called data science) methods to various problems I feel that I have an excellent foundation for my efforts in the area of Global Public Health.

The lives of many if not most of us will never be quite the same again after Covid-19. I now realize the complex ways in which it will take us years to recover from the economic, social, and mental health fallout of this pandemic. Just as data has been front and center in a myriad of innovative solutions for combatting Covid-19, I believe there is great potential for solving many global health problems using data science and AI. I want to be at the forefront of these efforts. I am particularly interested in using data science to study the role of human factors in global health systems – how cultural norms, human behaviour, and human action/intervention (or lack thereof) impact the overall quality of community health. A career in international development has been my life-long dream for as long as I can remember, and my interest in global health, in particular, has now come to the forefront of my intellectual world.

Racism: I believe no one is born racist, that racism is a learned behaviour with racist attitudes generally creeping into our subconscious from a very young age. In my home country of Tunisia where I grew up, even though the population is largely ethnically homogeneous, systematic racism does exist against the less than 1% black African minority. This is reflected by the fact that in the Tunisian dialect, the word for a black or dark-skin person literally means “slave”. Preference for light-skinned people is ingrained in white culture. As a child, I never really questioned these social norms. However, being brought up Muslim also meant that I was exposed to one of the fundamental premises of Islam which is that all human beings are equal. This helped to serve as a counterbalance to racism for which I am thankful.

I was already quite conscious and curious about equity, social justice, and human rights as a student in high school. Having lived in the US for many years now, I have come to embrace the causes of the least fortunate among us, especially the civil rights movement and also the black-lives-matter movement. I have read countless books, attended lectures, went to demonstrations, to try to make sense of it all. Some of my favourite books is “Makes me Wanna Holler” and “Man Child in the Promised Land”, which provided a lot of answers for me about the black experience in the US. Indeed, racism can be seen as a public health crisis simply because there can be no health equity as long as people of different racial/ethnic backgrounds do not have equal access to (opportunities for) quality education, housing, employment, and health care. I am excited that my MPH training at UNC will arm me with the skills and tools for designing and implementing programs that promote equitable quality health for all.

Why UXX: My first choice among MPH programs is the University of XXXX, for a variety of reasons, the humanitarian mission, the emphasis of global perspectives, the diversity, so many highly talented students from all over the world. I see UNC as the perfect launching pad for my greatest professional effort to date, helping to bring the power of big data analytics and AI tools to bear on today’s urgent health crises. A well-published professor of Computer Science originally from Tunisia, I have taught in several countries, increasingly focusing on data and its applications. I have also collaborated extensively with private as well as public sectors. While I have enjoyed my work very much, especially in the area of communication, the COVID-19 pandemic has provoked a thoroughgoing re-evaluation of my professional direction. As a result, I have now decided that I wish to devote my fullest energy to causes related to the advancement of global public health. I want to earn the MPH at UXXso that I will be able to contribute to the prevention of death, working night and day to help my species and our planetary home to survive despite enormous challenges.

I believe I have the willpower, vision, maturity, and skillset to become a highly successful global health practitioner, making important and sustainable contributions to the advancement and protection of global human health. I seek to harness the power of my background in data science to the development of a better understanding of the social/behavioural/cultural determinants of health in underserved communities around the world as I believe this is a key to improving healthcare and health equity, and helping policy makers and healthcare providers to make more fully-informed decisions.I hope to serve as an international development specialist/consultant working with global organisations and non-profits, such as the UN, World Bank, and Gates Foundation, on problems related to global health, food security, and/or conflict resolution. Having grown up in a developing country (Tunisia) and having lived in several other developing countries, I have experienced healthcare issues in the Developing World first-hand.

I have authored more than 20 research articles that are published in peer-reviewed publications. I am adept at explaining/presenting complex concepts/information. In addition to lecturing, I have served as a mentor to countless student projects (capstone projects, Master’s thesis projects), most of which were related to data science. In addition to my first (Arabic) and second (English) languages, I am also fluent in French and nearing an intermediate level in Spanish.

A long-distance runner, when I am not working, I am running. I thank you for considering my application to Global Public Health at UXX.

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