Spotlight on Seniors: Natalie Chen ’22 Advocates for Global Public Health

By Ella Murdock Gardner ’22

Portrait of Natalie Chen '22, a senior at Scripps College in Claremont, California

Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has proven the need for researchers, innovators, and leaders in the public health sphere. Enter: Natalie Chen ’22, a science, technology, and society (STS) major who is currently co-authoring a research paper for the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Chen developed her interest in public health while growing up in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Her mother—a graduate of Pomona College—works in public health, so Chen was aware of the multiplicity of social healthcare systems from a young age. She was also always fascinated with disease. “My parents still laugh about the fact that all the young-adult books I gravitated toward were about yellow fever or the plague,” she says.

So, when it came time to choose a major, Chen found a perfect fit in The Claremont Colleges’ intercollegiate science, technology, and society department. During her sophomore year, Chen took a class on water technologies that solidified her interest in the major, which combines classes in the history of science and technology, the philosophy of science, and political, social, and cultural perspectives on science and technology. “STS allowed me to merge my social science interests with my interest in medicine,” Chen says. “It’s really the best of both worlds.” She currently represents Scripps as a liaison for the department, helping to facilitate events, such as a recent panel examining medical technologies through a post-colonial lens, and discussing the possibilities of the major with interested students.

As the pandemic raged across the world during her junior year, Chen enrolled at Scripps part-time and supplemented her classes with remote internships in the public health space. In the fall of 2020, she started a remote internship at a school of public health in Bangladesh, where she studied how the COVID-19 pandemic was impacting female sex workers in that region. Working with a team in Dhaka who conducted and transcribed interviews with the participants, Chen tabulated the information and wrote an analysis of the data. “I found qualitative analysis to be really challenging and rewarding, and I got to build a lasting relationship with researchers I worked with,” she says.

In February 2021, Chen started a remote internship at the NIH’s Fogarty International Center. “Working at the NIH, it really registered that the pandemic was unfolding in real-time,” she says. “Everyone in the public health world was adapting to the situation as it evolved, and it was interesting to see how people were collaborating and asking each other questions to produce research and recommendations.”

Apart from attending occasional genomic epidemiology workshops and “fireside chats” with Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to the President of the United States, the bulk of Chen’s time at the NIH was spent researching how socioeconomic status affects health outcomes in Oshikhandass, a rural village in northern Pakistan not far from where she lived as a baby. Tasked with examining a longitudinal data set spanning the 1980s to 2013, Chen coded the data and placed it into summary tables, making it easier to digest changes that have occurred over this 30-year period. Now, she’s writing the introduction and the beginning of the discussion for the manuscript, meaning that her name will soon grace the byline of a published NIH research paper.

During her last semester at Scripps, Chen is working on yet another research paper: her senior thesis. Inspired by a famous article written by one of her professors at Harvey Mudd College, Chen is studying the applications of oral rehydration therapy, a solution of salt, sugar, and water that can mitigate the effects of diarrheal diseases. “The fact that this oral rehydration therapy is so simple and inexpensive to produce has made it an extremely important medical technology since it was discovered in the ’70s,” she says. Focusing on educational programs in Bangladesh that teach mothers to make the solution with ingredients in their homes—“in my research, I’m always interested in studying places I’ve lived,” she says—Chen argues that this technology has a certain fluidity, allowing it to be effective across different global health structures.

After graduation, Chen plans to pursue a graduate degree in public health. In the meantime, she hopes to continue researching the social applications and consequences of science in different parts of the world. “I feel very lucky that the STS major has allowed me to connect with people across The Claremont Colleges and given me the flexibility to explore and combine so many of my interests,” she says. “It’s definitely opened a lot of doors for me.”