“I feel like I can really shape my experience to work perfectly for what I want and need from it”

Alex in the lab

Alex in the lab

Alex Zuckermann is studying Global Health Policy by distance learning (GHP) with us. She told us what it’s like to study via distance learning, about her career plans and her favourite modules.

Please explain a bit about your academic/professional background

My academic trajectory has been characterised by a series of transitions between adjacent fields: my BSc was in Biology with Psychology, but my PhD was in Molecular Biomedical Sciences. Afterwards, I moved to Canada, where I spent a year doing a Postdoc in Proteomics at the University of Toronto and then another eight months working on Stem Cell treatments in Sepsis at St. Michael’s Hospital, Toronto. Around this time, I discovered that my interests lay towards the whole-human approach, in that I wanted to look at health at the population level, and decided to enroll in this GHP program. Around the same time I was offered a position as a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Public Health Agency of Canada, cross-appointed to the University of Waterloo, where I now work on substance use among Canadian youth.

Why did you choose to study GHP by distance learning with LSHTM?

I knew I wanted to move into Public and Global Health, and I knew I had much to learn, so I decided I wanted to get some sort of formal instruction. When I started looking for options for a part-time degree I could work towards alongside my job, I quickly realised that the traditional MPH didn’t have the scope I was looking for. I wanted to get an overview of global processes shaping human health, and so a degree in GHP was the obvious choice. LSHTM is a well-known institution, and both the course content and the structure of the MSc GHP appealed to me. The core modules covered all key aspects of Global Health, and there was a wide variety of elective modules to choose from, which meant I could focus on complementing my biological knowledge with new topics with which I was less familiar. I also liked that I could “exit” at two points, with either a certificate or a diploma, so should my circumstances change to the extent that I wouldn’t be able to complete the MSc I would not have spent time and money without any kind of recognition to show for it.

Hiking at Indian Staircase, Kentucky

How did you hear about the course?

The magic of Google. I had a look around for Public Health schools offering online programs with a global aspect, and LSHTM was one of the first hits I got. I’d heard of LSHTM of course, but I wasn’t aware it offered such a wide range of online courses. Once I’d had a look through the extensive information available on the website, I knew it was the best option.

What have been your favourite aspects of the programme?

One of the core modules contained a couple of lectures by [LSHTM director] Peter Piot, which I found absolutely spell-binding. Studying those lectures felt more like listening to a fascinating story than working to remember facts or figures. I’m currently taking the 101 module from the Epidemiology program, which is set up in the most engaging and fun way I’ve ever experienced in online learning. I very much enjoy chatting to and studying with health professionals from across the globe in the online fora, revision sessions, or one-on-one off-site. In terms of the program, I like that I’m be paying per module, rather than per term or per year, which means I can adjust my workload each year based on everything else that’s going on in my life. When I signed up, I assumed I’d be very busy while combining a full-time job and a part-time degree, so I was pleased that I wouldn’t be financially penalised for taking the full five years, if it came to that.

How has the programme helped you in your career (or current job) / how will it help your career in the future?

I joke that I’m doing my MSc at the same time as doing my first Postdoc, since both are in a field that is new to me. They complement each other perfectly, I can transfer skills I pick up in one context to the other, and I can use the work I do for one of them to inform my approaches to new problems in both. I’m hoping to continue in this field, so this course will likely be of key importance for my future career.

What skills have you gained from studying this programme?

I would say I’ve gotten a lot better at structuring my own schedule for studying, since the program’s flexibility means I could theoretically approach it however I wanted to, but also that if I get caught up in my job or other concerns there are few external checks and balances. I started tracking how much time I needed for each course component, estimating how much I needed for the whole module, and then drew up plans with achievable goals and deadlines. It has definitely made me more organised. It has also made me more creative: If I need to study but also know I’m busy day-to-day, I fit it in where I can, for instance by recording lectures and listening to them in the car.

What are your plans for after you complete your studies?

I would like to continue in this field, but exactly where (and in what role) is still uncertain.

What advice would you give to someone considering studying GHP at LSHTM?

Have a look at all the information given on the website (there’s a lot!) and then go for it! Don’t underestimate how much time it takes, take the time to sit down at the start of the year and make a plan, then stick to it. Start slow if you’re not sure how much you can do alongside your job. Use the forums! That’s where I’ve gotten my best feedback.

Please sum up your experience of studying by distance learning with LSHTM.

Alex's dog, Islay

Alex’s dog, Islay

I think the best word to use would be “intense” – mainly in a positive sense. I took on too much during my first year, but got through OK nonetheless by making time where I could and being consistent in my approach, as well as using all learning tools I could think of. The second word that comes to mind is “rewarding”, because I truly feel that I’m getting out what I’m putting in, and because I feel like I can really shape my experience to work perfectly for what I want and need from it.

Tell us a bit about you – what do you do when you’re not working or studying?

A lot of my time is spent going on adventures with Islay, my Swedish Vallhund puppy. She’s about 8 months old and has energy for days, which keeps me moving and also increases the amount of time I spend outside, airing out my brain in between work and study. In summer, I thoroughly enjoy going for longer hikes, plus I’m working on transforming our standard Canadian backyard into a bit of a haven for pollinators and other wildlife, which is extremely rewarding. In quiet moments I read a wide range of fiction and non-fiction, or listen to audio books. I also volunteer on demand for two European civil society initiatives, one focused on building better systems to support the vulnerable, especially refugees, and one aiming to improve the standard of political discourse and action by recognising, amplifying, and sharing the most innovative approaches to best practice internationally.

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