Pharmacy student joins World Health Organization influenza team for co-op term

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

John Kim standing inside the World Health Organization buildng

John Kim never thought he’d land an intern job with the World Health Organization (WHO) within the Global Influenza Programme.

“This was an unpaid position at the WHO’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. It was expensive and far from home,” Kim recalls. “But everyone told me that having experience at the WHO would be a major benefit to my career, regardless of what field I end up in.”

There are fantastic opportunities in the Waterloo Works system. Through a combination of funding from the University of Waterloo and School of Pharmacy as well as other sources, I was able to offset most of the costs.

“At first, I wasn’t sure what I could bring to the team. Many of WHO interns were Masters or PhD students with a background in epidemiology. As a pharmacy student, what chance did I have?” says Kim.

It turned out that Kim’s unique skillset – a combination of lab work, published papers, and his pharmacy education –made him an attractive candidate. These experiences made him successful at the WHO where he supported several large projects related to influenza and global public health.

John at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.

John at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.

 “Right now, the WHO has created a sentinel surveillance system–a system that is used to collect data and monitor influenza outbreaks around the world,” Kim explains. The current system is effective, but there can be a significant delay in acquiring, analyzing, and responding to the data during the pandemic-level outbreaks.  

To update the surveillance standards, the interns were assigned to different regions – Kim’s was southeast and southern Asia –and responsible for combing through the data and identifying abnormalities.

“I worked on a report to identify potential alternatives to the current system,” Kim says. “I conducted a scoping review of existing methods, evaluated the evidence, and am determining if there are promising alternatives we can recommend. My research will inform the revision of the chapter on potential ‘non-traditional’ methods of influenza surveillance.”

Kim is continuing to work on the project now that he’s back in class. He’s preparing a manuscript of his results and hopes to publish it later in 2019.

“It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience,” Kim reflects. “I have such an interest in influenza – its complexity, its public health implications – and at the WHO I had the opportunity to attend talks and meet with world-leading researchers in this field.”

Kim was also sure to take advantage of being in Europe. He travelled to six different countries and fifteen cities.

John visiting Bern, Switzerland.

John visiting Bern, Switzerland.

“Not only has this opportunity been informative for my career, but while travelling I finally had time to catch a breath from the craziness of class and co-op to reflect on my values.”

The lessons Kim’s learned are ones he’ll hold close to his heart as he moves forward in his career:

Don’t be afraid to explore your passions and interests beyond your comfort zone. Keep an eye out for these non-traditional experiences – take a risk, make cold calls and emails. You never know where it’s going to take you.

John visiting Grindelwald, Switzerland.

John visiting Grindelwald, Switzerland.