Interview with PhD candidate Ana Luiza Penna

September 9, 2019
By Diego C. Smirne

You participated the Harvard-Brazil Collaborative Public Health Field Course twice, in 2014 as a student and in 2015 as a mentor. Why did you decide to take part in the course, and how did these experiences help you grow professionally and personally?


When I first heard about the course, I was immediately interested in its proposition: academic excellence combined with on-the-ground learning, with a focus on major Brazilian public health issues. It is a very fertile combination that, unfortunately, many Public Health students in Brazil are not able to experience through their own academic programs. In addition to the theoretical part, the program allows us to visit many institutions and briefly see how they work, from the perspective of both their staff and the population they attend. That aspect greatly enriches the exercise of reflecting upon the public health issues those institutions or initiatives tackle. I would also add that this enrichment is not only academic but also personal, since these experiences stimulate a specific involvement, based on critical thinking and initiative towards change, with the field of public health, that ultimately resonates with one`s engagement with social justice and the public sphere. By doing so, it certainly helped me grow professionally and personally.

Ana Luiza Penna, PhD Candidate at Harvard

Did the Harvard-Brazil Collaborative Public Health Field Course influence your decision to apply to a PhD in Population Health Sciences at Harvard?

Yes, the course exposed me to a way of conducting research in public health that I felt was dynamic and effective. It also made Harvard, such a renowned institution, feel not only down-to-earth, but welcoming. I had never previously considered applying for a PhD program outside of Brazil. The course planted the idea of entering the seemingly far-fetched world of attending classes taught by world leaders in my field, and having them as academic mentors. So I would say yes, the course influenced my decision to apply by giving me a glimpse of the world of possibilities and growth embedded in a Harvard program. 

Tell us more about your academic background and your plans for the future. What are your main themes of interest and ambitions?

I have a Bachelor’s in Psychology from Pontifícia Universidade Católica (PUC-Rio) and a Master’s in Collective Health from the Institute of Social Medicine – Universidade Estadual do Rio de Janeiro (UERJ). My interests have always been related to development, awareness and attribution of meaning. However, researching development detached from the adverse social conditions that the majority of Brazil’s population endure felt pointless, which drew me to public health. At UERJ, I had great professors, such as Benilton Bezerra Jr. and Jurandir Freire Costa, who set up debates encompassing diverse areas such as medical sociology and anthropology, philosophy of mind and biopsychiatry. That academic experience, combined with my professional experience working with low-income families with chronically ill children, led me to my present research field, that is, maternal mental health and childhood development, with a focus on low-income countries. I am also interested in the intersections of this area and other relevant issues in public health, e.g. vertically transmitted diseases and treatment adherence. I would like to better assess childhood development and its influencing factors, in order to design and implement effective interventions, focusing on disadvantaged populations.

Looking back at your own experience, what advice would you give to Brazilian students thinking about applying to the Collaborative Field Course? And to those thinking about applying to a PhD at Harvard? 

I would tell them to consider if a pragmatic and interdisciplinary approach towards public health interests them and, if so, not to feel intimidated by the weight of Harvard’s name and apply to the Field Course. It’s a great opportunity to research Brazilian public health issues from a double perspective: local and foreign. For students thinking about applying to a PhD, I would suggest them to reflect on two things: whether their interests and experiences align with the programs/departments they wish to apply to at Harvard, and if attending such programs would substantially contribute to their professional and personal growth. I believe some students choose to apply to Harvard mainly driven by the institution’s prestige, without considering that this will in effect be your home and your path to the future. If you conclude it will be a good match for both you and the program, the same advice as before follows: don’t be intimidated and apply; Brazilians have a lot to contribute to this institution as well.

There are many possible ways for Brazilian students and researchers to be admitted to a graduate degree program, such as a Masters degree or a PhD, in Harvard. How was the process for you to get there? 

It was laborious and demanded focus and resiliency, because I had to overcome some deficiencies in areas that did not pertain to my previous academic background, e.g., math and statistics. In this sense, I had to build a bridge from my past to my future, and through that effort, I developed true appreciation for those subjects. Improving my quantitative reasoning expanded my analytical skills, ultimately enhancing my scientific literacy. Essentially, the application process itself was edifying for me. However, I have always had a widespread curiosity, and research was a way of putting that childlike sense of wonder and awe to good use as an adult, but rigorous research requires precision. A fundamental step in that direction was immerging in field/clinical activity. Experiencing the reality of the practices and issues I had only approached in a theoretical way was greatly enriching, providing me the maturity to grasp the importance of tackling those issues and allowing me to distinguish precise objects of research.