Ryan Napper ’13

Screen Shot 2015-08-16 at 11.22.19 PMRyan Napper’s journey into Global Health was unplanned when he arrived at Allegheny College. And, little did he know at the time, he would play a big role in developing this new major over the course of his undergraduate experience.

Ryan always knew that he would wind up in healthcare. He saw himself majoring in biology and heading to medical school after graduation. He decided upon Allegheny for its strong science programs and liberal arts teaching methods.

During his sophomore year, he discovered that a committee of faculty members was working to propose Global Health Studies as a new major. As he learned more about global health as a discipline, he was inspired to expand his academic path to include a self-designed, second major in Global Health and Development.

“I was always interested in microbiology, bacteria, and viruses. As I started to take global health courses, I began learning about those organisms in context,” he said. “This challenged me to not think strictly in one discipline, but to consider the social science, environmental impacts, and other factors that shape a disease and its end results.”

As he progressed through the program, his experiences were applied to the curricular planning for the new major, which made its debut among Allegheny’s academic offerings in Fall 2013.

Ryan combined his interests in biology and global health to develop his Senior Comp, which he presented at the Johns Hopkins Undergraduate Public Health Symposium.

“During my sophomore year, I was involved with an ongoing series of projects looking at H. ducreyi, the causative agent of chancroid. These projects were looking to use a plant compound as a low-cost treatment for this bacterial infection, which would be especially effective in its reservoir, specifically female sex workers in Kenya. I started looking into it, first biologically. As my global health experience grew, I was challenged to think about this infection beyond the basic science. I began to wonder about the social structures, the reasons behind the infection affecting Kenyan sex workers so disproportionately. My results started to surprise me. I cared less about the bacteria and more about this vulnerable population. Bacteria move in microns, but people move in miles. The bacteria weren’t traveling to sex worker populations with intent, so we shouldn’t necessarily treat it as such. The greatest impact in improving treatment for the infection would come from de-stigmatizing these populations and changing how society views them.”

During his time at Allegheny, he put his growing knowledge of global health issues into practice as a community health coach and founder of a patient-focused non-profit organization, called “I Bear Gifts,” that works in conjunction with the Meadville Medical Center.

“My Allegheny experience ended up being about challenging my thought process. Education is often about facts. At Allegheny, I learned that real life doesn’t delineate things so neatly. I can cite an experience with health coaching as the epitome of this process. I was working with a patient on the road to recovery. I thought that there was a clear path to normalcy and that we were making good progress. Unfortunately, during the recovery period, the patient was diagnosed with a new illness. We were thrown into unfamiliar territory where the road was hazy and answers were conditional. This experience instilled in me that I cannot stop questioning the way things are because not doing so would leave me unprepared to understand the winding path that life actually is.”

Ryan begins his Masters of Public Health with a certificate in Global Health at Columbia University this fall.

“I still have quite a bit to learn and this is a great opportunity to explore the field further. In the future, I would like to continue working on projects similar to my Senior Comp, but more directly. Similar to my time at Allegheny, I’m not entirely sure of where I will end up – that will be largely dictated by my experience.”

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What classes or clubs were you in involved in as a student?
While on campus, I concentrated my studies in biology and global health. However, some of the most influential courses that I took were outside my areas of comfort and expertise. These courses gave me not just knowledge in a given area, but also perspective. An example would be the medical ethics course, which really pushed me to think about the biomedical framework that I was so accustomed to. Rather than giving me a series of concepts to learn, it was an opportunity for reflection that shaped my professional trajectory.
What Global Health related internships have you participated in?
I had two internship experiences that really shaped my education. The first was a non-profit patient advocacy group that I had started in my sophomore year at Allegheny. This was a group of students who would visit patients in the local medical center, trying to get a better understanding of the patient experience while improving it. We were focused on giving patients company at a time of need.
The second experience was as a health coach with the Community Care Network in Meadville. I started in this program during my junior year at Allegheny as it was launching. In this role, I worked with four patients to improve their health through preventative medicine and health tracking. More than that, I learned how much of a partnership health needs to be in order to help people overcome adverse circumstance. Losing your health is something that dramatically changes your life, and is something many people don’t think about until it happens. It really takes a partnership and community to ensure equity in access and quality of care for those of us who are struggling with health issues. That is what I learned in this program.
What are your postgraduate experiences?
After Allegheny, I went to Columbia University for my M.P.H. focused in environmental health sciences and global health. For that experience, I also worked in Senegal for six months on a syndromic surveillance system and maternal health project. I just graduated in May and am currently working as a pharmaceutical market research/strategy consultant.
What was the content of your senior thesis?
My thesis looked at the prevalence of an STI among female sex workers in Kenya, specifically trying to identify particular biological components that would explain the epidemiological reservoir population. I also looked into using essential oils to treat the infection and how they could provide a culturally relevant solution this problem.
I chose this topic because it was a culmination of my experience at Allegheny. I had learned quite a bit about global health and microbiology. However, more so than that, I wanted my project to represent an understanding of context in scientific study. That every experiment relates to a greater ecology. So I chose to contextualize my investigation of the STI and propose a culturally-relevant solution because science must be actionable in global health and always recognize the greater context. More than anything, I believe that global health work requires us all to be able to change perspectives and scope, understanding the greater system of a problem. My thesis was an attempt to practice that.
What are your major topics of interest within Global Health?
My interests are pretty broad and varied. I’m interested in infectious disease, environmental health, cancer research, epidemiology, health systems, health access and equity.