Public Health Think Tank: Tackling the Tobacco Crisis in the UAE

This past weekend marked the inaugural Public Health Think Tank at NYU Abu Dhabi, a student-led event hosted with the support of the Career Development Center and Student Life.

The conference had been in the works since December 2013 when Alexandra Dimitri, CDC Pre-Health and STEM Advisor, first decided to create a public health oriented opportunity for students. The core team, made up of Alexandra Dimitri, Sarah Batbold (Class of '16), Kelly Doughtery (Class of '14), and Emma McGee (Class of '15) came together in February 2014, and orchestrated every aspect of the event - from event branding to inviting local health officials and organizing guest speakers.

What is the Public Health Think Tank at NYUAD?
The Public Health Think Tank (PHTT) is a student-led, collaborative, interdisciplinary, and locally engaged initiative designed to catalyze public health innovation in the UAE. It is designed to be an annual event, focusing on a different public health issue each year. The 2014 event dealt with one of the most pressing public health issues in the UAE today, tobacco use. The PHTT brought together a group of diverse students from eight different universities across the UAE to work in multidisciplinary and inter-university teams of four to five students. Each team was charged with the task of creating a public health intervention plan/initiative to contribute effectively to the local battle against tobacco use.

The conference hosted 29 participants from universities across the UAE including NYUAD, American University in Sharjah, HCT-Sharjah, Paris-Sorbonne, Dubai Medical College, Zayed University, Al Ain University of Science and Technology and others. Students came from a variety of academic disciplines, from marketing and design to engineering, biology, pharmacy, and political science.

Who was presenting at the conference?
Associate Professor of Medicine at NYU Langone and Principal Investigator at NYUAD Public Health Research Center Dr. Scott Sherman spoke to students about tobacco use in the UAE, educating students on the prevalence of cigarette, shisha, and midwakh use in the region.

The Director of NYU Global Institute of Public Health and the Dean of Global Public Health at NYU Dr. Cheryl Healton talked to students about her work in public health and the battle against tobacco companies. She has done formidable work with Legacy, an anti-tobacco foundation, where she spearheaded a famous anti-smoking movement known as the truth® campaign.

Saba Brelvi, who worked for nine years as a program director at the California Wellness Foundation, provided students with problem-solving skills through her workshop on creating a public health intervention, which she based off of the framework she learned at Johns Hopkins University while pursuing her Masters in Public Health. NYUAD Visiting Assistant Professor Of Visual Arts Goffredo Puccetti lead an engaging presentation skills workshop where he presented the dos and the don’ts of a good presentation, focusing on representations of data and the aesthetics of visual aids used during presentations.

In addition to the speakers' presentations, did participants receive additional support?
During the conference, facilitators provided the teams with guidance and structural support. The PHTT facilitators were a blend of speaking, writing, and economics GAFs and faculty members, including Lauren Minsky, Michael Weitzman (NYU), Scott Sherman (NYU) and Goffreddo Puccetti, along with Aisha Al Hamiz from NYUAD’s Public Health Research Center and Sal Lavallo, who is a consultant at McKinsey and Co.

How were the final presentations evaluated?
The six teams, named after animals native to the UAE, each had fifteen minutes to present their proposal to the panel of judges. Teams were asked to consider the feasibility of their idea, to address potential challenges, and to demonstrate evidence of their knowledge of the issue. Teams presented their proposed interventions to a panel of distinguished judges comprised of five notable public health figures: HAAD Senior Officer Dr. Arwa Al Modwahi; Sheikh Khalifa Medical City Head of Cardiology Dr. Wael Al Mahmeed; Director of NYU Global Institute of Public Health Dr. Cheryl Healton; NYU Professor of Pediatrics, Environmental Medicine, and Global Public Health Dr. Michael Weitzman; and Head of the Pulmonary Division at Rashid Hospital Dr. Bassam Al Mahboub.

Team Gazelle, comprised of Sarah Hassan from NYUAD and students from American University of Sharjah, Paris-Sorbonne, and HCT Sharjah had the winning proposal. Their project, "Shabab Against Adult Smoking", plans to bring together school students to create theater productions targeted at their parents to prevent adult smoking. By creating a theater piece to discourage tobacco use amongst adults, students participating in the production would also internalize the messages themselves, reducing the likelihood that they would become smokers. The initiative would also increase student involvement in the dramatic arts, an activity that is lacking in most local schools, and could have the potential to grow into an issues-based theater program similar to the RealAD show at NYUAD. Team Gazelle now has the chance to apply for a 3,000-dirham grant in order to start implementing their project here in the UAE.

By Emma McGee, Kelly Dougherty, and Alexandra Dimitri.