Santiago Internship Stories: MPH’s Howell Studying Police Brutality

September 02, 2020

Kristina Howell is a second-year student at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health (MPH) in the epidemiology department with a certificate in global health. She is currently doing her practicum remotely at the Society and Health Research Center (CISS by its acronym in Spanish) at Chile’s Universidad Mayor, while based in Florida. There, alongside Columbia med school student Thomas Wagner, she is working under the guidance of Álvaro Castillo Carniglia, an associate professor at CISS, and PhD student Abraham Gajardo.

Q: Can you tell me more about your practicum?

A: We are trying to quantify the direct health effects of police brutality and tear gas. Chile had a very high volume of protests in October 2019, some call it a social awakening, as a lot of the protesters had signs saying “Chile despertó” [“Chile has awakened”]. But there was a lot of government pushback on the protests and a lot of hospitalizations. We are trying to figure out the health effects of that in terms of quantity [of related injuries] and spikes [in medical consultations and hospitalizations].

Q: What have you learned so far?

A: I hadn’t previously had experience with the very beginning of working on a project, such as developing a research hypothesis and what not. We had to figure out what our study criteria should be, what our control group should be, in which way could there possibly be confounders, and do we need to worry about seasonality trends. The beginning details of formulating a research question is something I gained a lot of experience with. As well as the challenges of conducting research and data analysis, especially in places where there are several challenges in gathering the data. Also not being there is a challenge in and of itself.

Q: What data collection challenges did you come across?

A: We’re using publicly available data, reported to the Chilean Ministry of Health. Some hospitals have daily trauma consultations and hospitalizations that they report every month. Some hospitals simply don’t report it, so if we have an entire year of data, and we’re missing just one month, it will throw off our predictions, even if we’re missing just a little bit of the data.

Q: What are the challenges of being a virtual intern?

A: When I was doing data analysis at Columbia, I had somebody who was physically there with me. He could quickly look at my code and point out some little mistake. When I’m all by myself, working by myself and putting in all these hours of research, I can’t necessarily call someone up for a minute or two to help me with a tiny question. Arranging a meeting requires appointments, emails, time and scheduling. It’s not necessarily the physical constant support.

Q: Why did you pick this internship specifically?

A: I think it’s really important work that doesn’t necessarily get done. I feel like so much of the research is U.S.-centered, especially with police brutality and tear gas. Even globally, we don’t know very much about it. We don’t know the long-term health effects of tear gas, what it does to the body. There’s been hypotheses on maternal health and complications, chronic airway disease, etc. The fact that these things are readily used around the world to act as crowd control for what is almost always peaceful protests, which at least in the U.S. is our very first right, to speak our mind, gather in large groups, and protest what we think is not right. The fact is that there are very dangerous methods used against us, and others around the world that we don’t know anything about and aren’t caring to learn about. I saw it as an opportunity to bridge some of the gaps in knowledge.

Q: What do you miss about NYC?

A: Everything. What I miss most is going outside and studying. I love going outside and studying. Which I guess you can do anywhere, but something about hopping on the subway and going to a coffee shop and studying for the day is nice.

Q: Favorite study spots?

A: It’s very small and crowded, a coffee shop called the Chipped Cup.

Q: If you could go anywhere in the world right now, where would you like to travel?

A: Spain. I really love Spain. I studied abroad there once and I really liked it.

Q: Any book recommendations?

A: I’m currently reading a book called A People’s History of Heaven. It’s about a slum in Bangalore and the coming of age of all these girls.