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By Nasra Ismail '22
  • Department of Global Development
  • Global Development
  • Health + Nutrition

Meet Nasra Ismail ’22, an undergraduate in Global Development with a commitment to develop critical health solutions for underserved communities globally. As an intern with the Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office of the World Health Organization, Nasra worked directly with local partners to develop real-world strategies to eradicate the cholera outbreak in Yemen. From her leadership in Cornell’s chapter of Universities Fighting World Hunger to her research on childhood obesity, Nasra champions equitable access to basic human rights on campus and beyond. 

What are the grand challenges you want to solve in the world? 

I am interested in the health aspect of development, primarily with water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) issues, as well as health and wellbeing concerns. Clean water access is something too many people take for granted. For tens of millions of people around the world, the reality is that clean water is impossible to access. Water is essential to life yet unclean water kills, and kills viciously. In my future career, I seek to develop solutions that expand equitable access to health and wellbeing services. I hope to have the privilege of working with projects in the future to address grand challenges within clean water access and WASH issues.

Tell us about your engaged learning experience in Global Development.

I shadowed the Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office of the World Health Organization (WHO-EMRO), which serves as the communication medium between country offices and UN headquarters. The organization provides technical support and training to country offices, monitoring and measuring impact, and informing donors of progress being made.

My engaged learning experience focused on the cholera outbreak. Cholera is a bacterial infection often transmitted in contaminated water. It’s a terrible disease that can kill quickly and impacts people of all ages, especially children. Over 93% of all cholera cases globally were concentrated in Yemen from 2017 to 2019. Since 2016, there have been 2.5 million suspected cases and over 4,000 deaths.  The goal of the WHO is to keep case fatality rates below 1%. In past years, the World Health Organization has successfully reduced the case fatality rate in Yemen to 0.16% which is far below their 1% goal — the strategic planning and research that goes behind their interventions is effective!

In my internship, I had the privilege of attending the WHO-EMRO deep-dive conference where the country, regional, and headquarter offices established their goals and objectives for addressing the outbreak in Yemen. The goals were to research, identify, and prioritize the short-term, medium-term, and long-term interventions to prepare and respond to the cholera outbreak in Yemen. The challenges are great and made even worse given the additional variables like the COVID-19 pandemic and reduced resources and donor support. At the conference, I was able to engage directly on critical topics like epidemiological situation, leadership and coordination structures, preparedness and response planning, resource planning and mobilization, supply chain and logistics, case management, key health interventions, third party monitoring, use of oral cholera vaccines (OCVs), WASH, and risk management.

What did you take away from your time with WHO-EMRO?

What stood out to me the most was the role of nutrition in cholera case management, the importance of vaccines (specifically OCVs), and most importantly access to clean water. I am motivated by the intricate processes behind real-world solutions that impact the health of millions of people. Cohesive research and preparation is incredibly crucial for addressing health and wellbeing, clean water access issues, and all other sustainable development goals.

What lessons do you anticipate applying in your future work or career? 

Health and wellbeing play a massive role in the field of global development. Water, sanitation, and hygiene issues are incredibly pressing challenges that, if improved, can stop the rate of disease infections and promote health. The issue is far more complicated than I originally anticipated: there are several stakeholders and it takes months, sometimes years, to create and execute interventions. This experience has only increased my budding interest in health and development. While I had initially planned to continue shadowing the organization in person this past winter, that was not possible due to public health safety precautions due to the omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. I plan to potentially visit Cairo this summer. Special thank you to Dr. Abdinasir Abubakar from the World Health Organization for the critical role he has played in my experience and for making this opportunity possible.

Do you have any favorite professors from your time in Global Development?

My favorite professor from my major has been Dr. Terry Tucker! He was one of the first faculty members who I met when I first came to Cornell and has positively impacted my academic experience. I have had the privilege of taking three incredible courses with Dr. Tucker, and he has been incredibly supportive outside of the classroom as well. Whenever I needed academic advice or even help finding opportunities, Terry was always there and willing to help in any way that he could. Being able to have a supportive professor is a privilege in and of itself. I strongly encourage future students to reach out to their professors and build those relationships — they are incredibly crucial!

What advice would you give to another student considering an engaged learning experience?

Shoot for the stars: worst case scenario you will land on the moon! Discover your interests and find organizations that align with them. Start thinking about your engaged learning experience early on. Do not be like me and panic during the spring of your junior year. Do not worry too much about whether or not you believe you are qualified or if they will even respond, send that email anyways! You never know what can happen. Do not hesitate to reach out to faculty members or alumni, as there will always be someone more than willing to help you!

Student spotlight

Nasra Ismail '22

Nasra Ismail ‘22 is an International Agriculture and Rural Development major with a minor in Inequality Studies. As an undergraduate researcher in the Figuera Interdisciplinary Lab, she conducts research on childhood obesity in underserved populations participating in federal nutrition assistance programs. She helped co-found Cornell’s chapter of Universities Fighting World Hunger (UFWH), and serves as the chair of special projects for the Black Biomedical and Technical Association (BBMTA) where she coordinates all volunteering and mentorship opportunities. Previously, she served as the Diversity and Inclusion Chair for the Phi Delta Epsilon pre-medical fraternity.

Headshot of Nasra Ismail '22

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