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AU Students Develop Public Health Plan to Fight Sexually Transmitted Infections

Win Harrison C. Spencer Interprofessional Prize at DC Public Health Case Challenge

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The AU team with faculty advisor Melissa Hawkins (second from left)

Last month, a team of six American University Public Health students developed an innovative solution to battling sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in young adults in the District of Columbia. In the process, the team won the prestigious Harrison C. Spencer Interprofessional Prize at the eighth annual DC Public Health Case Challenge, which pits teams of local university students against each other to develop the best solutions to critical public health problems of importance to District of Columbia communities.

AU’s Olivia Gonyea, Yongyi Lu, Anita Novillo, Jessie Sadel, Aria Wanek, and Kai Wasson worked for two weeks to develop “SexifyDC,” a multi-platform initiative that would improve access to gonorrhea and chlamydia screening services as part of preventive care. Working in collaboration with DC Health and GetCheckedDC, which offers in-home and walk-up testing options for District residents, the AU team proposed an app, mobile testing, and peer facilitators as resources for sexual health education and STI information.

Melissa Hawkins, director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Health Studies, served as faculty advisor to the AU team. She says the students were tireless in their work to develop a feasible, creative, and innovative plan to reduce STIs among young adults. “They collaborated well together, incorporated a multidisciplinary perspective to develop their peer-facilitated Sexify app, and created an effective presentation,” she said. “I am especially proud of these six students because they were among only two undergraduate teams that participated in the competition.”

The Challenge

The DC Public Health Case Challenge is designed to promote interdisciplinary, problem-based learning around a revolving series of public health issues. It is co-sponsored by the National Academy of Medicine’s Kellogg Health of the Public Fund and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Roundtable on Population Health Improvement, with support from the Global Forum on Innovation in Health Professional Education.

This fall’s challenge topic was “Addressing Infectious Diseases Using a Population Health Approach: Prevention and Control of Bacterial Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) in Young Adults 18–24.” It’s an important health issue. Sexually transmitted diseases have been on the rise across the United States over the past decade. One in five people in the United States had an STI on any given day in 2018, an estimated total of nearly 68 million infections.

Each team was given two weeks to develop a solution to this complex problem with a hypothetical $2.5 million budget to be used during a five-year span.

The Judges

The AU team presented its solutions to a panel of expert judges:

  • Dawn Alley, head of health care innovation, Morgan Health, JPMorgan Chase
  • Nixon Ricardo Arauz, Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellow; Ph.D. student, department of health behavior and policy, Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine
  • Edward Belcher Jr., future Metropolitan Police Department cadet
  • Darrin D’Agostino, provost and chief academic officer, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center
  • Rebekah Horowitz, senior analyst, HIV, STIs, and viral hepatitis, National Association of County and City Health Officials
  • Matthew Rose, director, U.S. policy and advocacy, Health GAP (Global Access Project)

The AU team members say they were pleased to see their hard work recognized with an award, and that the entire experience was immensely valuable. “It was a wonderful experience to collaborate with five other team members to provide a solution from different perspectives for the prevention and control of STIs at the community level,” said AU senior Public Health major Yongyi Lu.  

Kai Wasson, a third-year public health scholar with a minor in sociology, agrees. “The Public Health Case Competition was an all-around amazing experience that really challenged me to apply my growing public health knowledge to a practical scenario. It was great to work with a team of AU students and collaborate on a truly meaningful level. As all public health is, this competition was really a team effort, and we are so happy that our commitment paid off.”