MENTORSHIP Program EXPERIENCE
MICHAEL J. SMITH
Health Research and Policy Intern
November 2016- June 2017
Based in New York City Michael is completing a Master's of Public Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. He previously has an undergraduate degree in Environmental Biology and has over five years of experience in scientific research and human health. Michael has co-authored a published paper in a national genetics journal and is co-authoring a manuscript to be published in 2017.
When I applied for Alaa’s mentorship program back in October, I had no clue what to expect. There was the Alaa that I saw on the TED stage, on the BBC, on the floor of the General Assembly of the UN - but I had no idea what Alaa was like in person, or what it would be like to work with Alaa. More on Alaa later, but short answer - she’s pretty weird, funny, and a tad awesome, just like me.
I wondered what the dynamic of the program would be like, since I was the only intern older than Alaa. But, I didn’t dwell on the fact that I was a 29-year-old intern. I was so interested and passionate about what Alaa was doing, I didn’t think about it - I just wanted to get involved.
As the mentorship program started, I was finishing my Masters in Public Health - more specifically, I was spending every free second that I had plowing through my thesis, with a deadline a few weeks after the program started. Admittedly, the first few weeks of the program were the worst - I constantly felt behind, tired, nervous and generally like I had no clue as to what I was doing. My day usually looked like: eight hours at work, then writing my thesis, then researching things like if local leadership and governance are the answer to a crisis of governing credibility and the weakening authority of the nation-state - it was a little overwhelming. And, to top it off, I knew the mentorship program would be a big change in field; I had spent the last five years working in a lab - now I was going to working on speeches and making policy recommendations - it felt like a huge leap.
As the program entered the second month and I finished my thesis (whew), things started to become more clear. Alaa began to tailor assignments and research to my specific interests. I started writing about biowarfare, security, global health crises, and emerging diseases - and expanded other areas, like policy writing, research on child trafficking data and effective youth leadership strategies - all of which were new to me. But the beauty of this program is that Alaa gives you a chance to get involved with everything - whether it be writing a guest blog for The Elders or critiquing and giving feedback for her speeches, you have the chance to jump in head first with Alaa.
Doing this program with a full-time job required some additional sacrifices. Waking up at 6 AM to start researching a policy paper or writing a literature summary was grueling and often exhausting. But, I found myself rushing home from work at 5 PM to work on that very same assignment. I knew that the work was so timely and important, there wasn’t a moment to waste.
Alaa conveys the importance of her work and holds you responsible for delivering quality for every assignment - and as the program progressed, responding to her urgent Slack messages and requests for help on a certain topics felt exhilarating. I honed my writing and research skills over these six months - to a point where I could turn around a daunting and complex assignment in less than a day. Op-eds became less like an assignment and more of an opportunity to write about something that I found interesting and relevant. After a few months, I was pitching op-ed ideas to Alaa. Eventually, you realize that Alaa has worked a bit of ninja magic - because you become so efficient and responsive, the reward for finishing your work is - more work. And, eventually you understand the work that Alaa does never ends - and the spaces she’s involved in are always changing. You (almost) develop the same speed and endurance that she has.
All of the excitement and positive energy surrounding the program, however, would not be possible without the other interns. One of the most important facets of the program is the chance to meet people that are as passionate and committed as I am - and through this program, I have not just made colleagues, but friends. Many nights were spent on Skype with other interns - some of them thirteen hours ahead - collaborating on projects and giving each other feedback. I know that we are more than just interns in Alaa’s program - we are friends for life. Our intern retreat in Bonn, Germany, was the kind of life experience you never forget. Seven people, one bathroom. Sounds like the title of an evil reality show - and on some mornings, it felt like that. But, when you work so closely with such selfless and generous people, sharing our little German cottage was a lot of fun. And for Alaa, growing up as the middle child of eleven, our situation in Germany was a cake walk.
Now, some words about our fearless leader. I must admit, I was a bit star-struck by Alaa for our first few calls. It took me a few weeks to feel comfortable calling her “Alaa” and not “Dr. Murabit”. Forgive me for having a hard time coping with her mystique, but this is someone who hangs out with Forest Whitaker and just name-drops Leo Messi (she says he’s nicer than Ronaldo) into conversation. She’s also brilliant. I was nervous for the first few weeks, mostly because I didn’t want to say something idiotic - and I was hyper-aware of sounding like an idiot, because Alaa is so on point with everything. Like, everything. She can vacillate between the importance of understanding gender inequality, then quote statistics about the number of new measles cases in Minnesota, then provide a succinct history on global bioware from World War I to present, sprinkle in a few topics related to Imperialism and Colonialism along the way, and finish by giving a summary of thoughts and critiques for an op-ed she read in the Washington Post a few weeks ago - all without missing a beat. It’s impressive and awe-inspiring.
But one of the joys of the program is getting know Alaa when she is not behind the podium - getting to know the Alaa that likes to sing along with the radio in the car, the Alaa that loves a cup of tea, the Alaa that will show you pictures of her family, and the Alaa that loves talking about food (note: avoid topics related to chunky peanut butter). And you also get to meet her whole team - a wonderful group of people that are involved with Alaa’s work - and they not only help her out but they help you out, too. Our Slack group is full of comments, suggestions, feedback - from everyone in the team, not just one person.
Alaa makes herself available, no matter the time or place. If she’s a keynote speaker at a summit, festival or event, in any time zone, she is there for you. She remained my leader, advisor and mentor throughout the program - but after six months, I feel like I can confidently add friend to that list. Alaa is always there to listen and will do anything in her power to help you - no ask is too big or too small.
You really can ask Alaa anything.
Just don’t ask her to make me do my Trump impression. Yuge.