Q&A with MPH Student Victoria Hope Sanders

October 22, 2019

Mark your calendars: Columbia Giving Day is October 23. This annual University-wide event is a chance for alumni, faculty, staff, and other friends of the School to show their support by raising funds for student scholarships. Last year, donations totaled more than $60,000 for current scholarship students. One of those students, Victoria Hope Sanders, has found her passion in public health by studying the health impacts of climate change. Now in her second year, she is honing her leadership skills as president of Students for Environmental Action and co-lead teaching assistant for the Determinants of Health Core Module, where she is responsible for a team of 12 TAs and more than 400 first-year MPH students.

Sanders was born on a military base in Belgium where her father was stationed at the end of the Gulf War. The resolution of the conflict inspired her parents to give her the middle name Hope—fitting for someone motivated to take on the monumental challenges presented by the climate crisis. As her experiences in and out of the classroom make clear, public health shows the way forward to solutions that can protect billions around the world.

How did you get interested in public health?

I grew up in California in a community that prioritized taking care of people and the Earth. After graduating with a psychology degree from UC Davis I worked for a few years in HR, following in my father’s footsteps. I learned a lot about life in the real world, but I ultimately decided HR wasn’t a good fit for me. I decided to go back to school, but it wasn’t until after I took the GRE that I learned about public health—specifically environmental health sciences. A lightbulb turned on. I realized that public health was the perfect intersection of my interests: social justice, the environment, infectious disease. I wanted to do something to make a difference in the world, and here was my chance. Thankfully, I was able to secure funding to make it possible.

What aspects of public health interest you?

I am interested in the health impacts of climate change and infectious disease. Some people are confused about how these things are related. In fact, they’re deeply intertwined: the changing climate is changing infectious diseases—particularly vector-borne infectious diseases. For example, the plague is a reemerging global health threat that happens to be endemic in the Western U.S. spread by fleas on small rodents like prairie dogs. Of course, infectious diseases are only one of many health impacts of climate change—heat stress, rising sea levels, natural disasters, food insecurity—all of which are being most felt by the most vulnerable communities with the smallest fossil fuel footprints.

There’s no question: the climate crisis is daunting, even overwhelming. What keeps me motivated is how exciting it is to learn about the science on climate change and health—and the possibility of finding creative ways to protect the health of front-line communities. 

These are the kind of discussions we have in and out of the classroom. I’m the president of Students for Environmental Action, and the climate crisis is front and center on the minds of not just our group but across the school. We’re young enough that we’ll likely be living on this planet for many decades to come. We’re all deeply invested in making sure the conditions are hospitable to life and good health.

What opportunities has being a student here made possible?

Where do I start? Maybe the most important are the leadership opportunities. Over the summer I worked at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene where I worked on infectious diseases. It was the tail-end of the measles outbreak, and I did outreach in Brooklyn to offer resources like free vaccinations for adults and children without insurance to doctors in those communities that were most at risk. I also learned SAS—a statistical programming language—to do research on tick-borne diseases, specifically to learn which of these diseases are becoming more common in the city.

This fall I’m co-lead TA for the Determinants of Health Module in the Core. It’s been great to work closely with faculty. The Core is transitioning to the flipped classroom model where many lectures are available online. It’s been successful; students appreciate that it opens up more time for discussions. It’s an intense learning experience. Stress and the endocrine system, toxicology, the human microbiome—these are just a few of the topics we’re covering. But the exchange of ideas makes it all worthwhile.

It's been an incredible time for learning new skills. I learned to code in R and map in GIS, which helped get me the position at the Department of Health. And now I’m gaining leadership experience. It’s not easy to get managerial experience without having been a manager, and now that’s something I now have under my belt. I don’t know yet what I’ll be doing after graduation, but I know I’m ready for it.