COPH welcomed dozens of Panamanian students from the City of Knowledge. Where are they now?

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In 2004, the USF College of Public Health (COPH), in partnership with the Panamanian government and USF Health, developed the USF Health Panama Program at the City of Knowledge, an international academic and research campus in Panama. The program gives students from both countries and a variety of disciplines the opportunity to conduct meaningful research, train alongside leading health professionals and experience first hand an array of public health issues. 

As part of this program, the Panamanian government, through the National Secretariat, of Science, Technology and Innovation (SENACYT), has supported students from Panama who want to conduct their studies at the COPH in Tampa. In the last 15-plus years, dozens of Panamanian students have participated. 

“The Panama Program established a recognized presence in Panama and the rest of Latin America, conducting academic and research activities in the region. This includes study abroad programs, international field experiences and internships, service learning, faculty and student exchange programs and multiple types of research opportunities,” said Dr. Arlene Calvo, coordinator of the program. Calvo, a Panama native, is also a three-time Bull, earning her BA, MPH and PhD from the university. “Many of the [Panamanian] alumni are physicians, but we’ve had representation from different professions,” she explained. “They go to USF with a full competitive scholarship granted by the Panamanian government through the SENACYT. We’ve had undergraduate, MPH, MSPH, DrPH and PhD students.”

The students who partake in the program are some of Panama’s best and brightest. They undergo a comprehensive selection process for the scholarships and then have to be accepted by the university. Many of them return to their home country and serve in important positions in government and private or international agencies. Some of them are involved in national health policy development, others in research and still others in academia—but all are contributing to the public health of the country and the region. And, of course, they are providing recognition of the COPH in Latin America. Where have these students ended up? And what do they have to say about their COPH experience? We caught up with some of them.

COPH Dean Donna Petersen, center, with Panama Program coordinator Arlene Calvo, PhD, seated, fourth from left. They are surrounded by a delegation from USF and Panamanian alums at the 100th year celebration of the Panama Canal. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Calvo)

Jesica E. Candanedo, MD, MSPH, EDS

National head of research for health (regulations, promotion, policy and strategic planning) and professor at the University of Panama

“Being a full-time student at a first-world university gave me a range of opportunities to hone all types of skills. The COPH gave me all the competencies I needed to pursue a leadership position in public health practice at the central level of the Ministry of Health. It also gave me the abilities necessary to apply for and win grants to strengthen public health interventions I have worked on. The COPH is a place where everyone can feel welcome because of its international orientation. It’s a great environment to experience public health research as well as public health practice.”

Jesica Candanedo wears her Panamanian sash during COPH graduation ceremonies. (Photo courtesy of Jesica Candanedo)

Arturo Rebollon, MD, MPH, DrPH candidate

Regional medical manager for cardiovascular and renal health at the biopharmaceutical company Sanofi

“The COPH is a great place to become a public health bad ass. The faculty consists of world-renowned experts, the staff is always helpful and the doors are always open to opportunities. I had the chance to study complex and sometimes controversial topics in a neutral environment. I can recall a few moments that were hard, like analyzing the 50-year teenage pregnancy trends in Panama. We shared these results with authorities to build sex-education guidelines. I learned a lot of strong scientific methods at the COPH that I use and share frequently in my professional life.”

Dr. Arturo Rebollon, center, speaks at an American College of Physicians forum with other medical experts from Latin America. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Rebollon)

Natalia Vega, MSPH

Study coordinator for clinical trials and COPH DrPH candidate starting fall 2020

“Although I had experience in clinical trials, it was the research experience I got from my MSPH degree that helped me get more into the design of studies. Learning the basics of research and biostatistics has been key for my research collaborations. The COPH provides mentoring that I found to be unique—and also energizing. They provide the resources needed to help build an academic portfolio that helps you grow in the field.”

Natalia Vega (right) and USF medical student Brennan Nineslint (center) stand with Calvo during their poster presentation at the 2019 American Public Health Association (APHA) annual meeting. (Photo courtesy of Natalia Vega)

Lissette Chang, MD, MSPH

Coordinator, STD/HIV Program, Ministry of Health, Panama

“My experience at the COPH was more than I expected. I liked the variety of courses, some of which I had never known existed. The faculty was also part of the charm—they were approachable and interested in helping you better understand courses and mold them into achieving your purpose. But one of the most meaningful things was meeting people like me who were seeking knowledge they could bring back to their countries. It was very humbling. The COPH helped give me perspective and understanding so I could see beyond just one solution.”

Mayela Castro, MSPH

Medical technologist scientist in the Transfusion Medicine Department at Orlando Health Regional Center in Orlando

“As a medical technologist, I wanted to do more than just help with the diagnosis of diseases. I wanted to help prevent them. I loved the fact that the COPH knows about the culture and the main health problems in Panama. I also loved that I was immersed in a group of students so diverse, they helped me to understand different countries’ needs and health organizations. The COPH really has it all. You get the best innovation learning and support as well as the opportunity to meet people from all over the world, giving you a more global point of view.”

Lorna Jenkins, MD, MSPH, CPH

Data manager in the Resident Coordinator Office at the United Nations, Panama office “While I was a student at the COPH, I gained most of the hard and soft skills—from analyzing data to planning, researching and writing—needed to advance a career in an intergovernmental organization such as the United Nations.”

Humberto Lopez Castillo, MD, MEd, PhD, CPH

Freelance research consultant and medical writer/translator “The main reason I chose to further my education at the USF COPH was because of their strong presence in Panama. Few US universities have the level of involvement with Panamanian communities the way USF does. My experience was nothing short of supportive. My mentors worked closely with me to understand my unique background as a clinician who was interested in research. I was an unusual PhD applicant because I did not have an MPH, however the program was a great fit with my interests in youth and risk behaviors.”

Dr. Humberto Lopez Castillo, right, with Calvo. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Lopez Castillo)

Ilenia Anneth Forero, MD, MSPH, CPH

Health planner at Hospital del Nino Dr. Jose Renan Esquivel, the specialized pediatrics hospital in the capital of Panama

“The curriculum at the COPH is completely different from the public health curriculum in Panama. You are given the opportunity to adjust it to your exact needs. Learning about health care services in other countries helps you contrast with the ones locally. This can lead to new ideas and approaches of delivering or improving the health system.”

Roderick Chen-Camano, MD, MSPH

PhD candidate in biomedical and clinical research at the School of Medicine, University of Panama

“During my time at the COPH, I focused my education on biostatistics and epidemiology, two areas in which we have a lack of medical professionals in Panama. When I returned, I found a position as hospital epidemiologist for a highly specialized 900-bed hospital. The COPH is a place where you can learn skills, in a multicultural environment, that are needed in Panama and around the world. Overall, I had an excellent experience.”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health