Student Voices May 15 2019

Public Health at 212 Degrees

Cynthia Kemp reflects on her time at Columbia Public Health and urges her fellow graduates to innovate, collaborate, and advocate as public health practitioners.

Using language from a research methods class here at Columbia Public Health, I entered this program representing the right tail end of a skewed age distribution, certain that I would raise the mean, but uncertain of my reception. Today, I can unequivocally say to my fellow graduates that you have been the richest gift of my journey. You have inspired me with your passions, warmth and generosity. You’ve raised my technology IQ and forgiven my many mistakes like leading the long way – the wrong way – in pouring rain!  You’ve made me laugh and humbled me with your intellect. I am honored to call you my colleagues and my friends.

I’d like to muse about an important number in science – 212 degrees Fahrenheit. At 211 degrees, water is hot, but just one degree more brings water to the point of transformation, where boiling water turns to steam – where you can see, hear and feel a sense of urgency rising from the water!

As public health practitioners, I challenge us to take what we’ve learned at Columbia and the relationships we’ve made along the way, to take public health to 212 degrees. I ask you – individually and collectively – do we have that impassioned sense of urgency to tackle the social and environmental determinants of health, to halt the factors behind preventable deaths and diseases, to confront climate change and to provide access to quality and affordable care to all people? How do we do this? Let’s start with the taboo topic of money.

Cynthia Kemp, Columbia Public Health, public health

Public health at 212 degrees is funding. In 1914, New York City’s Commissioner of Health opined that “public health is purchasable.” More than 100 years later, this compelling idea resonates in all corners of the globe, including here in New York City. We must secure adequate and flexible funding to invest in population-based strategies and the infrastructure that supports them. And, we must join the fight to fund the upstream nonmedical factors influencing health outcomes such as food insecurity and unemployment. Consider homelessness: I recently read that hospitals of the future will be in our own homes, but what if you don't have a home? 

Public health at 212 degrees is innovation. Technology can transform lives, but will we be creative in using it?  Consider Ebola, which can be tracked through cellphones, Internet of Things, and Blockchain technology. Mobile connectivity brings medical expertise to rural areas and improves communication between providers and patients. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are tools we can use to predict, target and maybe even cure deadly diseases like Ebola.

Public health at 212 degrees is collaboration. The challenges we face are multifactorial in their root causes and their solutions. Both domestically and globally, we must view public health through a wider lens. Bending the trend of chronic diseases and climate change cannot be achieved without cooperation of health, transportation, agriculture, education, environment and business sectors. That’s not going to be easy!  We must be intentional in breaking down barriers to realize such a monumental collaboration. 

Public health at 212 degrees is advocacy. Publishing research in high impact journals will continue to be important, but it’s not enough to simply hope for public and media attention.  Will we find our voice and use it to translate research into the three Ps – policy, practice and public opinion?  Insulin is a drug that has kept my son alive for 15 years. And It is advocacy that has brought the egregious pricing of this drug to the forefront of today’s conversation. How else might we change the world into what it should be with advocacy?

I invite you, my fellow 2019 Columbia Public Health graduates, to commit to this journey today, tomorrow and every day. Our collective actions can be that one extra degree that brings the waters of public health to that point where transformation occurs. And when we reach 212 degrees, we must heed the words of Nelson Mandela. “When the water starts boiling, it’s foolish to turn off the heat.”


Cynthia Kemp graduated from Columbia Public Health in 2019 with a Master of Public Health degree. She holds a Master of Business Administration from the University of Indiana Kelley School of Business, and a Bachelor's degree in Finance from Florida State University. 

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