Thailand co-op reinforces student’s drive to improve public health

10/20/15 – BOSTON, MA. – John Sirisuth BHS’17 poses for a portrait on Oct. 20, 2015. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Jonathan Sirisuth’s international co-op story began in an unlikely place and in an unlikely way: in Snell Library, browsing Facebook.

On a late September evening last year, Sirisuth was taking a break from studying for an organic chemistry exam and, as he put it, “desperate for stimulation” after drawing benzene rings and their reactions over and over again. He turned to social media and came across a friend’s Facebook post seeking a travel companion for her international co-op in China.

Jokingly, Sirisuth replied, “Knowing Chinese necessary?” His friend immediately sent him a private message with a heap of information about international co-op—something he hadn’t considered until that moment.

“She planted the seed in my head, and I ran away with it,” he said.

Sirisuth, BHS’16, a health sciences major enrolled in the joint BS/MPH program, initially focused on landing a co-op in China. But after speaking to his mother and doing some additional research he turned his attention to finding a public health co-op in Thailand—his family’s homeland.

“This would be a health crusade and a way to discover my heritage,” he explained.

His global learning experience began in January in Surin, a rural province bordering Cambodia, where he volunteered as a medical assistant in a clinic serving 11 villages. Over the course of two months, he joined a handful of volunteers from the U.S., Canada, and the Netherlands helping to treat hundreds of patients, the majority of whom had wounds and lacerations from working in the rice fields.

“This area of Thailand is driven by the agricultural economy,” he said. “So it was an opportunity to see not only farm-to-table but also the working conditions these people face.”

Following his two-month volunteering stint, Sirisuth began the second phase of his co-op, spending six months at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. Sirisuth didn’t have a defined public health research project upon arrival; rather, he was given the flexibility to find one.

“It was tough to cope at first, because I’d never been given that much freedom,” he said. “In my previous co-op at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, I’d taken directions and had more guidelines to follow. But here I was pushed in a space to think on my own. It was a reality check for me, but it was also motivating.”

Sirisuth ended up networking with a doctoral student and assisting him with his dissertation work. The project involved assessing communicative health literacy, with a particular focus on coconut farmers in southern Thailand who were dealing with complications from Type II diabetes. Together, the duo developed a questionnaire for a qualitative study of these workers, the goal of which was to inform how to better implement health education programs for this population.

I was pushed in a space to think on my own. It was a reality check for me, but it was also motivating.

Sirisuth said that prior to this co-op, for which he received a Presidential Global Scholarship, he’d gained valuable experience on his first co-op at Mass General’s Center for Laryngeal Surgery and Voice Rehabilitation, where he observed health professionals both in the research laboratory and the operating room. He’s also volunteered on child obesity research and awareness programs at Tufts University, an opportunity that stemmed from his freshman year service-learning experience with Northeastern’s Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures program.

These experiences, he said, have collectively reinforced his desire to be, as he put it, “a lifelong learner” in public health. What’s more, he said they have opened his eyes to the interdisciplinary nature of healthcare and the value of having a wide range of professional experiences to propel his career forward.

“Here on Northeastern’s campus, it’s almost impossible for you to not be interdisciplinary,” he said.