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News Story

How Isabel Powell (C’24) Uses Public Health Research to Improve Lives Around the World 

Isabel Powell’s time at Georgetown hasn’t been confined to Washington, DC, but has led her around the world, conducting public health research and marrying her dual passions of science and policy.  

Powell, who is graduating with a major in biology of global health and a minor in justice and peace studies, wasn’t exactly sure what path she’d take when she started her first year of classes via Zoom four years ago. 

“I knew that I would do something with biology,” Powell said. “And immediately, I thought it was fascinating to look at the world through a microscope, but I didn’t know how to combine that scientific interest with my desire to solve real-world problems, problems that we can see without sitting at a lab bench.” 

Powell’s academic and extracurricular journey has been defined by research and mentorship that taught her how to blend together those distinct interests. 

“One of the unique things that Georgetown allowed me to do was to merge these two pathways,” said Powell. “I could say yes, it’s about the disease, the pathogen, and all these cellular things, but also at the end of the day it’s about people, their lives, their families, and their communities.”

Research All Around the Globe

After her first year at Georgetown, Powell traveled to Boston, Massachusetts on a Royden B. Davis Fellowship. There, she interned at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute investigating cellular indicators in breast cancer and melanoma tumors.

“I got there and loved looking at problems under a microscope,” recalled Powell. “And while I found the research intellectually engaging, I felt emotionally disconnected from the effects of the work because, realistically, it wouldn’t impact people’s lives for decades.”

That experience, Powell remembers, confirmed her love for science but left her with a desire to do more immediate, people-facing work. Upon returning to the Hilltop, she began working with Dr. Indira Narayanan, who was studying neonatal mortality in Jordan. 

On the left is the Dalai Lama, a bad man wearing an orange robe and eye glasses. He shakes hands with a woman in a white dress wearing a white mask.

Isabel Powell meets the 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people.

“We focused on infants with low birth weight in a country that has comparatively good healthcare outcomes for the region,” said Powell. “With Dr. Narayanan, I asked: ‘How can we practically improve this?’ And I loved that. I felt like I was getting close to what I wanted to do because we were talking about policies and programs and we were translating our research and knowledge into real-world change.”

After connecting with Narayanan through the Global Health Institute, Powell was accepted into the GHI fellowship program, which allowed her to work with Dr. Samson Haumba. Haumba, who was studying barriers to cervical cancer screenings in Eswatini, placed Powell in charge of the internal review board, or IRB, process, which includes an in-depth outlining and justification of research methodology.  

“Cervical cancer is treatable and, if caught early enough, curable. Since the screening process is so effective, we wanted to figure out why certain populations in Eswatini were being underscreened,” recalled Powell. “The barrier wasn’t the screening itself but getting people to the screening, for a mix of social and economic reasons.”

Working with Haumba opened Powell’s eyes to the ways that cultural factors, such as stigma, can affect healthcare seeking behaviors and, ultimately, the lives of patients. That insight affected an independent study program she conducted in Himachal Pradesh while studying abroad in India. Home to the government-in-exile of Tibet, Himachal Pradesh has the largest population of Tibetan refugees in India. Powell’s research project explored HIV and tuberculosis stigma within this community. 

A girl with her hair back smiles at the camera. She wears loose sweat pants and a sweatshirt and stands on the top of a mountain. Behind her, the sun rises over a wide-reaching valley.

Isabel Powell (C’24) hiking the Triund Trek overlooking the Kangra Valley while in Himachal Pradesh, India.

“I looked at how cultural stigmas around certain diagnoses affect patient mental health and their healthcare-seeking behaviors,” said Powell. “This project allowed me to both look at the science, how these behaviors are affecting the epidemiological landscape of this population, and the broader scope, how those same factors affect patient wellbeing and mental health.”

Her journey in public health continued, carrying her from India to Thailand to work with the Research Triangle Institute on Inform Asia: USAID’s Health Research Program. There, she worked with the Division of Vector-Borne Diseases to devise a draft national strategy for the optimization of active case detection protocol, as well as a guideline for malaria elimination among school-aged children in border provinces. 

“My time in Thailand allowed me to fuse all of my passions and skills into comprehensive global health policy,” said Powell. “It was the first time I truly felt like I had the power and ability to genuinely impact the health of a community.” 

Powell on the Hilltop

On campus, Powell has been heavily involved with the Social Responsibility Network (SRN), a mentorship program in the College of Arts & Sciences for students interested in pursuing service-based and social impact careers. 

“Social impact is this hard-to-define area and the Social Responsibility Network not only makes it easier to understand but connects us with people in the field,” said Powell. “The SRN is a space where current students come together with alumni and other practitioners to make impossible-sounding careers seem doable.” 

During her senior year, Powell served as the co-chair of the group’s Sites and Services Committee, which was tasked with finding organizations to host the Social Responsibility Network and then designing service visits.    

An older man with white hair wears a smart suit and stands next to a smiling woman with white jeans and a green top.

Isabel Powell (C’24) with Distinguished University Professor Dr. Anthony Fauci.

“The visits that Isabel organized were truly inspirational for the SRN students as they allowed us to learn about the mission and philosophy of each organization, the structure of each organization, the personnel who run the organizations and its impact in the community,” said Thomas Chiarolanzio, a senior associate dean in the College of Arts & Sciences who administers the SRN. “Isabel was often the SRN spokesperson on each visit and offered the organization an overview of the SRN and its mission. She always did a fantastic job conveying our interests and why the SRN exists and what it hopes to accomplish.”

For her senior research project, Powell pulled on all of the research and classwork that she’d done as an undergraduate to arrive at the topic: preventative healthcare-seeking behaviors and social determinants of health for undocumented people in the United States. The project explored how migration and refugee status affect healthcare-seeking behaviors and an individual’s overall health. 

“Working with Isabel has been an absolute pleasure; she is truly exceptional,” said Jeanetta Floyd, a professor of biology who oversaw Powell’s thesis project. “Her steadfast dedication to her thesis research and to implementation of practical global health solutions highlights her capacity to effectively address global health challenges.”

For Powell, the senior research project allowed her to apply the skills she’d learned as an undergraduate to a topic that was near to her heart.

I felt like I was getting close to what I wanted to do because we were talking about policies and programs and we were translating our research and knowledge into real-world change.”

Isabel Powell (C’24)

“Growing up, someone extremely close to my family was undocumented,” said Powell. “Learning, retrospectively, the ways in which she had to alter her life to do something as simple as visit a doctor, was eye-opening for me. I became acutely aware of the barriers that stood in her way but didn’t block mine. So, to me, it was a very personal project and I was motivated by that.” 

Powell was recently awarded the Chapman Medal for this work, an honor that the Department of Biology presents to “the undergraduate student with the most outstanding research project.”

“Isabel’s senior research project not only exemplifies academic rigor but also demonstrates a profound sense of empathy and tangible impact, showcasing her strong commitment to driving impactful change in global health,” said Floyd.

Reflecting on both her senior project and the numerous research opportunities that Powell pursued outside of the classroom, she’s incredibly happy with her time at Georgetown.

“When projects mean a lot to you they don’t feel like work,” said Powell. “A lot of the time, it feels like an honor to be able to do it. I was lucky to always have something interesting to me.”

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Biology of Global Health
Social Responsibility Network