Beth LarsonWhat are you currently doing, professionally and/or personally?

I am a doctoral student at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the Population, Family and Reproductive Health Department. My research interests include the use of normative approaches to understand family planning use and how social norms affect people’s decision-making around family planning internationally, and with a focus on Francophone West Africa. I aim to base my work in reproductive justice, which represents the right of a person to have the autonomy to decide to have children, to not have children, and to parent children in a safe and supportive environment.

Outside of school, I work on several projects, including Performance Monitoring for Action (PMA), a large-scale international mobile phone-based survey on key sexual and reproductive health indicators. I also participate on a research project based out of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Health that aims to understand how to increase womens’ voices to ensure the ethical provision of family planning care to women in Francophone West Africa.

I also play on numerous tennis and softball teams throughout the year, volunteer as an escort at Planned Parenthood, have been providing emergency food relief to people in my community since the start of COVID, and, of course, strive to be the best dog mamma possible to my dog Sasha.

How did you get there? Where did you attend college? Are there some career moves or other key experiences or relationships that have inspired you?

I always knew that I wanted to have a career based in a health-related field working in Francophone West Africa. My passion for the region began at an early age thanks to MPA’s amnesty program, when in fourth grade our amity scholar, Lena Gueye, was from Senegal. I cannot remember why, but meeting and learning from her sparked an interest in Senegal and Francophone West Africa that has stayed with me to this day.

I went to Lawrence University for college, where I was pre-med, majoring in French and Francophone Studies and minoring in biology. One of the many reasons why I chose Lawrence was its established study abroad program in Senegal. My participation in the study abroad program was my first time of many in Senegal, and even though it was not an easy experience, it taught me a lot about myself and what I value. Although I continued to be pre-med until the night before my MCAT, two years later, it was my experience in Senegal that sparked my interest in working to improve health and well-being at a population, rather than individual, level. Finally, the day before my MCAT, my pre-med advisor, Dr. Beth DeStasio, helped me to understand that becoming a physician was not what I wanted to do, and instead, I should look into public health.

After graduating from Lawrence, I moved back to Senegal and spent a year working for an NGO called CREATE! while applying to graduate programs. I then attended the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to get my Masters of Science in Public Health in the International Health Department, Health Systems Program. At the start of my MSPH, I set a personal goal of not getting pulled into the world of academia. However, over the years that I have worked in the public health field, I have learned to appreciate the vital roles that research plays in ensuring that programs and policies effectively respond to the needs of the population. It was this experience, and the years following my MSPH, when I worked for another NGO, Tostan while living in Senegal, that helped me to focus my interests on the social norms around family planning use in Francophone West Africa, and decide to pursue a PhD.

How did your MPA experience prepare you for your life today? How did MPA inspire you to dream big and do right?

The most influential aspect of my time at MPA was the acknowledgment of many of my teachers that as students at a private PreK-12 school in Minnesota, we existed in positions of extraordinary privilege. Within school, this included our access to art, language, and music throughout our entire academic career, and MPA’s insistence to not “teach to the test”, so that our teachers were able to focus on what was actually important and interesting, not just what was on a standardized test.

Outside of school, this generally included the financial stability of our families that provided us as students with an environment where we could flourish, instead of facing the stress of not having resources to live a comfortable daily life, or not being accepted for who we were. I remember sitting in Ms. Conway’s class, learning about American history and the differences between our social and financial positions as privileged Americans compared to others in the US and in the world. Ms. Conway insisted that we needed to use this privilege to make a difference and enact a lasting positive change on those around us.

I also remember a very moving Upper School class on National Coming Out Day, where my teacher stayed taught silently for the entire class period to emphasize the daily lived experiences of LGBTQ+ people. This experience helped me to understand how incredibly lucky I was to not need to hide any part of my identity from those around me. Today, an integral part of my career and daily life is to make this a reality for everyone. I am have become the person I am today due to the privilege I have experienced throughout my entire life, and I will always be grateful to the MPA faculty who did not shy away from this fact but made us tackle the issue head-on, no matter how uncomfortable that might have been.

What’s next? Do you have any aspirations–personal or professional–that you’d like to share?

Being a doctoral student, it is hard to imagine what life is going to be like beyond defending my thesis. However, I hope that wherever I end up I will be able to pursue my passion of researching the social norms of family planning in Francophone West Africa, and continue to work to advance reproductive justice throughout the world.

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on Linkedin