Making a Difference, Adventurously

Maggie Murphy in Togo with two young neighbors.

Maggie Murphy '06 in Togo with two young neighbors. Photo courtesy of Murphy.

Maggie Murphy ’06 finds adventure and makes a difference through global public-health career

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

The family was not able to send a child to the local health center, despite serious illness. Maggie Murphy ’06 asked how much a treatment might cost and learned it was about $4—too expensive for a family living on about a dollar a day.

It’s a heartbreaking but not uncommon scenario in a small village where clean water is not a given and access to health care and expertise is limited. As a Peace Corps volunteer who lived in Togo for two years, Murphy performed many tasks, big and small, to educate her community about health care and to help build systems to support healthier lives. Nearly seven years after her return to the U.S., she travels to West Africa regularly, this time approaching public-health issues at the national level.

Sowing seeds

A double major in sociology and international studies who graduated summa cum laude with departmental honors, Murphy came to Dickinson as a first-generation college student with a clear vision of the six years ahead.

“I knew I wanted to study abroad in Africa while I was at Dickinson, and I knew that I wanted to travel to Africa with the Peace Corps right after graduation,” she said, explaining that she’d heard about the Peace Corps from a high-school teacher and had immediately latched on to the idea. “I was motivated by a mix of wanting to make a difference in the world, wanting to have an opportunity for true culture exchange and just wanting to have an adventure.”

Her sociology advisor, Associate Professor of Sociology Dan Schubert, spotted her talents and offered her a student-research position during the 2004-05 academic year—an opportunity that opened Murphy’s eyes to the possibilities ahead while providing experience in interviewing and data preparation. She ultimately co-authored a paper with Schubert on his cystic-fibrosis research.

Murphy spent her junior year in the Dickinson-in-Cameroon program, as she had planned. The experience confirmed her interest in global issues and later helped Murphy more quickly adjust to life as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Togo and beyond

Living and working in Togo was challenging, and Murphy did not return home for two full years. Like her neighbors in her small village, she lived in a modest house without indoor plumbing, collecting rainwater in a cistern for drinking and bathing. She also attended traditional ceremonies and otherwise immersed herself in day-to-day local life.

Murphy worked with local leaders to organize a school-management committee to help fund teachers’ salaries and operational costs at the local secondary school; oversaw the repair of two broken water pumps; and teamed with local health-center staff to organize talks about family planning, child nutrition, malaria and HIV/AIDS prevention. And as she worked, she realized her passion for women’s health issues.

After Togo, Murphy entered a master’s-degree program in public health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, which led to a job at John Snow Inc. (JSI), a U.S.-based, international public-health consulting firm. She now provides technical assistance to Ministries of Health and local partners in West Africa to strengthen public-health supply chains, improving the availability of family-planning commodities.

The global view

Murphy recently visited Dickinson to share her experiences in international public health with students interested in the Peace Corps, health studies and related careers.

Her presentations were part of a series of career-info sessions led by health-studies alumni this semester. Physician Fred Kauffman ’77 discussed his experiences and observations in the medical humanities. Tara Russell ’06, a clinical-research coordinator in her second year of surgery residency at the University of California-Los Angeles’ M.D./M.Ph. program, will join Devy Emperador ’08 (M.Ph., University of California-Berkeley), a Global Health Corps fellow for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Yolande Greene ’10 (M.Ph., Drexel University) for a joint conversation on Feb. 26.

During her visit, Murphy spoke with students about her path thus far and outlined her job, which is based in Arlington, Va., but sends her to West Africa an average of once every two months so she can ensure that women and families—like the one that struggled to send a child to the health clinic some six years ago—have the supplies and support they need.

“I’ve had a chance to go back to Cameroon and Togo, and it’s really cool to see and work on these issues from the opposite end of the health system,” Murphy said, adding that she had just returned from a month in the Ivory Coast, where she worked with representatives from the Ministry of Health and HIV/AIDs Prevention. “Seeing these issues from different sides gives you a fuller understanding of how [global health operations] work.”

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Published February 10, 2015