Student outreach is the focus of the global health conference.
Student outreach is the focus of the global health conference.

Student founders of the Houston Global Health Collaborative want to change the world in a healthy way.

Admittedly an ambitious endeavor, Edward Pettitt, Michael Goodman, and Eric Crowell think now is the right time and the Texas Medical Center is the right place for institutions to combine efforts for disease research, clinical interventions and education that can save lives around the globe.

“Our mission is to unite the member institutions of the Texas Medical Center community to further global health research and service,” said Pettitt, a master’s student at The University of Texas School of Public Health at Houston who also works as a senior project coordinator with the Baylor College of Medicine International Pediatric AIDS Initiative at Texas Children’s Hospital.

The Houston Global Health Collaborative grew from informal meetings attended by students at Baylor College of Medicine and the medical, public health and nursing schools at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. The students discovered they had a common interest in tackling global health concerns, and combined efforts, because Pettitt said, “there’s power in numbers.”

The meetings were spearheaded by Pettitt, Goodman who is a doctoral student at UT School of Public Health at Houston, and Crowell who is a fourth-year student at the Medical School

The three invited interested students and faculty across the Texas Medical Center to participate. The goal was to foster collaboration among Texas Medical Center institutions, and “get the institutions talking about what each one was doing in terms of global health,” Pettitt said.

“We saw Houston and the Texas Medical Center as being ideally situated as a hub for global health,” Pettitt said, “but because the medical center is so large, cross-communicating among institutions can be challenging.”

Various institutions had no way of knowing what their neighboring institutions were working on, and therefore they sometimes duplicated efforts, Pettit said. “We wanted to open up those lines of communication,” he explains.

The informal lunchtime- and after-school meetings spearheaded by Pettitt and his fellow students led to the creation of the Houston Global Health Collaborative. The organization is less than a year old, has more than 200 members, and is sponsoring its first conference this month.

The “Collaborating to Advance Global Health” conference takes place Friday and Saturday, March 22 and 23, at the Denton A. Cooley, M.D. and Ralph C. Cooley, D.D.S. University Life Center, 7440 Cambridge. The conference begins Friday at 5:30 p.m. and ends Saturday at 5:30 p.m.

Inspired by other regional global health collaborative efforts, such as the Triangle Global Health Consortium in North Carolina, which brought together 18 academic, non-government and corporate members to address global health needs, the Houston Global Health Collaborative is a student-led initiative designed to get faculty leaders from Texas Medical Center institutions talking more and investing more in global health collaborative research, education, and service.

Pettitt said Houston, with its multicultural population, and the Texas Medical Center with its 54 institutions, offers the perfect venue for trailblazing global health initiatives.

“When our physicians in the Texas Medical Center collaborate with others across the world,” he said, “they become better physicians, which ultimately benefits their patients here in Houston.”

Institutions throughout the Texas Medical Center are conducting research aimed at curing diseases that may not be prevalent in the United States, Pettitt said, but could be a problem here in the future.

Goodman said the Houston Global Health Collaborative’s success is due in part to “being a student-driven effort.”

“We’re able to more flexibly navigate institutional barriers,” he said, “and we represent the changing nature of health students’ interests.”

Although student driven, the collaboration’s organizers welcome and solicit support from faculty and administration in making the organization sustainable. “We want sustainability,” Goodman said, “and students by nature are transient.

“Many of the students who are planning the conference will be traveling to underdeveloped countries to help build health infrastructure after graduation,” Goodman said, so faculty and administrative support will be crucial.