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Why An Interdisciplinary Approach Matters

By Crystal Yednak

When Danny O’Farrell worked in seven African countries helping connect health workers with motorcycles so they could reach patients in remote areas, he fell back on the skills he learned as a global health minor at Northwestern.

As he negotiated contracts with ministries of health and non-governmental organizations in various African nations, he could draw on a broad base of knowledge gleaned through the global health program’s interdisciplinary approach. His coursework spanned anthropology, economics, journalism and history, to name a few.

“That’s what public health is. It goes across different areas. Northwestern’s program really treats that right as opposed to a lot of programs that separate it out,” said O’Farrell, who graduated from the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences in 2007. “It gives you tools that you can apply to whatever you want to do.”

His interests and skill set have already taken him to Beijing to conduct HIV-testing research through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; to Africa, where he worked as a partnership officer for the not-for-profit Riders for Health; and most recently, to San Francisco, where he works at a pharmaceutical company evaluating a domestic HIV-testing program.

An economics major, O’Farrell also took an international journalism course on South Africa during his time at Northwestern, producing an article on HIV and the South African National Defence Force. The range of experiences contained in a minor program – from a diverse course list to the required study abroad experience -- helped change O’Farrell’s career plans.

He had been planning a career in international business until his experience in the Public Health in South Africa study abroad program shifted his thinking. “When I saw the needs on the ground in South Africa, that’s when I changed,” he said. Through the program, O’Farrell and his classmates volunteered in a township hospital helping to organize the pharmacy and patient files, while taking classes that analyzed the health system and how it worked.

“That’s what I still do now, seven years later,” said O’Farrell, who went on to earn a master’s degree in global health and population from the Harvard School of Public Health.

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