Speaking the language of public health

Shilin Zhou ’13 has found joy in being a translator of scientific and health information

Shilin Zhou ’13 in Botswana

When Shilin Zhou ’13 first arrived at Agnes Scott College from Shanghai, China, she fully expected to study biochemistry and become a pharmacist. But she soon realized that she felt strangely lonely in a lab setting.

“I wanted to talk to people, and you can’t do that with molecules in a lab,” Zhou said. “The molecules won’t talk back to you.”

While she may not be able to converse with molecules, Zhou is now preparing to attend graduate school at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health this fall to study public health communication and has found joy in being a translator of sorts, bridging the communications divide between scientists and the public and between public health agencies and the global community.

“Public health communication is a field that combined my previous experience with laboratory science with my interest in interacting with people and working with communities,” she said. “It’s important to speak the language of science—it’s such an important part of public health … there needs to be someone to educate the public about what has been done in the laboratory, and this person needs to speak the language of both scientists and the public.”

Zhou’s road to public health had many forks but started with an Agnes Scott course called Health Communication. She was hooked and switched her major from biochemistry to the college’s new public health major.

Exploring her new interest, Zhou was selected as one of the college's Bevier Scholars and interned at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s David J. Sencer CDC Museum in the summer of 2011. Her internship included work on an oral history project chronicling the center’s past. A film studies minor, Zhou was able to draw on her love of photography and video during her internship, making a video and working to create a CDC multimedia database.

While interning at the CDC, she also interviewed several public health experts about global public health, and a new focus on global public health was sparked. In 2012, Zhou spent a semester in Botswana studying public health at the University of Botswana, volunteering in HIV clinics and making home visits in rural areas. Roughly 25 percent of Botswana’s adult population is HIV positive, so the testing Zhou was assisting with resulted in sad news for a significant portion of the clinic’s patients.

“Between 30 percent and half of the people who were tested would be positive. It’s very moving to be there and see their reaction to the results,” Zhou said. “I’ve seen people cry. I’ve seen them laugh because they are so happy when they find out they are negative and then want to tip the nurse. Working in that clinic, I really felt like I lived the epidemic.” 

When her study-abroad semester ended, Zhou stayed in Botswana through the summer thanks to a Kathryn W. Davis Projects for Peace grant she received for a proposed water project. She was able to jump into an existing water project but with a new spin that made use of her expertise in public health communications.

A Botswana high school had installed a system to filter water to irrigate the school’s grounds that had previously been used by the kitchen. But grease was leaking into the warm kitchen water and then solidifying outside, blocking the water system pipes. A team was brought in to move the grease trap away from the water source and unblock the pipes, but Zhou was tasked with educating the school’s kitchen workers on how to prevent future blockages.

Zhou created an educational pamphlet and signage to explain how the water system worked, including procedures for handling kitchen water appropriately and explanations of why it was important to follow those procedures to maintain the water system. She also held workshops for the kitchen workers to demonstrate procedures and explain the system.

Zhou said she thoroughly enjoyed the project and has plans to possibly return to Botswana with a future project.

Looking toward her future career, Zhou said she’d like to focus on social as well as visual media in health communication.

“Video is a creative way to inform. Well-made, highly visual storytelling is very powerful and engaging and can be a very effective tool in health communication. And I think technology is extremely important as well, especially in developed countries where people can use smartphones and apps to monitor their health,” she said.