Facing Hardship to Make an Impact in Public Health

“The tears running down your face do not blind you.” In many ways, Nadine Dogbe’s life reflects this proverb–the idea that despite hardships, it is important to keep persevering.

“In Togo, we speak Ewe and French, and we eat pounded yam along with whatever is left of our butchered livestock,” she says. “The proverb above inspired us to be always positive even though we did not know if a better future would be possible.”

Growing up in Togo, a developing country located in West Africa, Dogbe has experienced many hardships in her pursuit of science. A 2017 Amgen Scholars alumna, Dogbe is now pursuing a master’s in public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Disease with the ultimate goal of getting a Ph.D., with a focus on strengthening health systems in low and middle income countries. Her time as an Amgen Scholar at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) helped define her scientific path.

We caught up with Dogbe to learn more about her childhood in Togo and her educational path.

ASP: First let’s start with what is on everyone’s mind right now: What is it like to be in public health right now during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Dogbe: This is a very unprecedented time and definitely a very interesting time to be studying public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The school is very involved in all the research going on worldwide and especially in the United Kingdom. Our current director, Peter Piot, has worked on many disease outbreaks before, notably Ebola. Many researchers at the school are very experienced in dealing with infectious diseases. 

The most interesting thing for me during these past few days was to witness each government’s response to the outbreak. I am doing a concentration in health economics in my program, and it’s been fascinating and quite troubling to see all of the things we learn being put into practice in Italy and in the UK. 

Because I am studying public health and I have a lot of information through my school and my colleagues who are currently taking care of patients, I am not panicking. My colleagues and I have been practicing social distancing since March 12. It was a deliberate choice that the majority of students at my school made. 

Science is very important to me because it allows us to discover the unknown. We have a lot of innovation because of science, and I want to contribute my part as much as I can.

ASP: Can you tell me about your early interest in science? Why is it important to you?

Dogbe: I became interested in science at a very young age. I didn’t know much about research while growing up in Togo. 

For many years, my father suffered from cataracts and glaucoma. His condition deeply impacted our family’s financial situation, as he was eventually laid off from work for not being able to keep up with the demands of his job due to his blurred vision. My father is one of many Togolese citizens whose ability to financially contribute to their family has been reduced due to chronic health problems resulting from the lack of access to adequate medical services. I have therefore had several personal motivations for choosing a career in science. 

Science is very important to me because it allows us to discover the unknown. We have a lot of innovation because of science, and I want to contribute my part as much as I can.

ASP: What led you to public health?

Dogbe: Originally, I wanted to go to medical school because I wanted to make sure that people like my dad received the best type of care. I completed all the necessary coursework and was going to apply for medical school in Togo. However, I was selected to receive the US diversity visa in 2011 during my senior year of high school. I was very excited to pursue the rest of my studies in the United States. 

Unfortunately, when I arrived in the US, I was struck by a lot of difficulties. I struggled daily with learning English and managing my coffee shop job. I also independently managed my finances, including sending monthly allowances home to my family. I stumbled upon public health by accident after attending an event at the NIH. The NIH invites area community college students every year to the Bethesda campus to introduce them to careers in science. There, I met a number of scientists who had PhDs in public health. I started networking with them and eventually learned about all the different aspects of public health. I love its multidisciplinary aspect. I love the fact that I could do research and still be familiar with all the biomedical and scientific topics, but also get to work on policies.

ASP: Can you tell me a bit about your time as an Amgen Scholar?

Dogbe: I had my first research experience through the Amgen Scholars Program. It allowed me to gain my first scientific work experience and expanded my network. The program at NIH was perfect for me even though I did not realize how good of a match it was when I first applied. It strengthened my desire to pursue my graduate degree right after completing my undergraduate degree at St. Olaf College (Minnesota).

I always wanted to go to graduate school but thought about taking a break to get financially stable before heading down that road. Our time learning health disparities allowed me to narrow down my interests in public health to health system strengthening and health disparities research. I learned to take chances outside of my comfort zone.

ASP: What was your favorite part of the Amgen Scholars Program? 

Dogbe: I really enjoyed our health disparities roundtable discussions on Wednesdays and our social events with our program coordinator Dr. Klenke.

Explore the unknown and you might just find a topic that will shape the rest of your career.

ASP: Can you describe your path from Amgen Scholars to the London School of Hygiene?

Dogbe: After my experience with Amgen in summer 2017, I secured a second internship at NIH with the Health Disparity Unit within the National Human Genome Research Institute during summer 2018. Then, I completed a study abroad during fall 2018 in Denmark studying the Danish, Finnish, and Estonian health system. There was a focus on prioritization in healthcare within a universal health system, and I applied for the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine during that time). Then, I worked briefly with the Global Fund Management Unit within the Togolese Prime Minister Office. I moved to London and started the program in September 2019.

ASP: What advice do you have for other Amgen Scholars?

Dogbe: Try to be open as much as possible. Do not restrict yourselves. Explore the unknown and you might just find a topic that will shape the rest of your career. And, always practice your networking skills.