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The Gift: Inspiration

The Gift: Inspiration

By Marcia Quackenbush, MS, MFT, MCHES | July 28, 2017
Senior Editor, ETR

A couple of days ago, I spent some time with ETR's 2017 Kirby interns. What an extraordinary group! This year's interns all bring international background and deep experience to their time at ETR.

The group has given me a healthy dose of inspiration. If you, like me, sometimes feel discouraged about the future of science-based public health and sexual/reproductive health, do not despair! Young professionals like these are going to bring about amazing changes.

(And that fun photo shows Lisa Unti, ETR Research Associate and general internship mentor, Love Odetola, Dharmit Shelat and Selah Agaba.)

ETR’s Kirby Summer Internship

This annual internship is open to graduate students in education, psychology, sociology, public health, epidemiology or a related field with a focus on sexual and reproductive health. It is hosted in honor of the late Dr. Douglas Kirby, a senior research scientist at ETR who dedicated his career to promoting sexual and reproductive health among young people. Learn more here.

I’d like to share some of the reasons I’m so excited about what ETR's interns are offering the field.


Dharmit Shelat, MD, MPH, grew up in India, studied medicine in Ukraine, and earned his MPH from Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. He’s fascinated by the power of data and the potential of well-run epidemiologic studies. “Our data system is not great in India, or in most developing countries,” he told me. “There are very few well-run epidemiologic studies there.” Dharmit wants to develop systems that allow for more accurate data collection and the application of that data in creating effective public health policies.

My own public health nerd heart just soared when Dharmit said to me, “Most people who see someone from India here in America say, ‘Oh, you must be an engineer, right?’ Because that’s really where the better money is. But I am not interested in making the most money. I am interested in making a difference.”

Here's a recent post Dharmit contributed to our blog on succession planning for organizations.


Love Odetola, MPH, grew up in Senegal. She was deeply struck by the realization that, “All young people have dreams—this is universal. But not all are given equal opportunity to pursue those dreams.” She has founded an organization that seeks to address these disparities among teen girls in Senegal who have dropped out of high school. You’ll see more about this work in her upcoming blog post.

Love has a profound vision of the power of public health to create societies with greater equity, greater strength in their communities and more peace among nations. Her vision is an inspiration. With her impressive determination, I am sure she will succeed in advancing this agenda.


Selah Agaba is a doctoral student at UW-Madison, majoring in Cultural Anthropology & Education Policy Studies. She grew up in Mbarara, a district in Western Uganda. In the 1980s, this was one of the places ravaged by the AIDS pandemic. It was also a time when infant and maternal mortality rates were high, as they are today.

Selah explained, "When a woman got pregnant, it was expected that she might progress well and deliver a healthy baby. However, it was also expected—maybe normalized—that the mother, the baby or both could die during the process. These deaths occurred so regularly, it did not seem strange or unusual to me when they happened."

Today, Selah works to advocate for comprehensive sexual and reproductive health rights of adolescents globally. She promotes comprehensive education and access to guidance and services on contraception. In her current research, she is seeking to understand adolescent pregnancy from the perspective of adolescent girls and boys in Uganda, and how this maps onto the government's policies and practices.

"In Uganda," she told me, "most young people's futures come to a startling stop when they get pregnant. This isn't right. The repercussions are severe for the young people, their communities and the country too. Adolescents' hopes and dreams for their futures should not be extinguished by a pregnancy. We can't afford for that to keep happening."


I am filled with gratitude for these three outstanding individuals, all of whom are making considerable sacrifices to pursue their work so far from home. We are lucky to have the opportunity to learn from their wisdom. I found many of my own ideas being challenged by their fresh perspectives and distinct experiences.

And this makes me grateful for young professionals all across the fields of science, health and sexual and reproductive health. Thanks for hanging in there! You are making a world of difference.


Marcia Quackenbush, MS, MFT, MCHES, is Senior Editor at ETR. She can be reached at



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