Alumni Spotlight: Megumi "Meg" Ichimiya
Meet Megumi "Meg" Ichimiya
HBS alum, Meg Ichimiya, MSPH ’20, reflects on discovering her interest in health communication, navigating graduate school as an international student, and leveraging the skills she developed during her time at the Bloomberg School in her post-graduate life.
- Program: MSPH in Health Education and Health Communication
- Graduation Year: 2020
- Hometown: Yokohama, Japan
- Current role: PhD student
- Fun fact: I have two mischievous cats.
Public Health Journey
What first sparked your interest in health education and health communication?
I got a very severe illness at the age of 14, which lasted for almost five years. I underwent treatment until I was able to fully recover and have a normal life.
During my illness, I struggled with collecting information and trying to understand what was happening with my body. One of the biggest struggles was understanding if the health information that I came across was applicable to me and my condition.
Though I could find information through books, websites, and other resources, it was not tailored to me. That experience made me realize that people really need tailored health information to improve their health. That's why I got interested in public health, specifically health education and health communication.
What inspired you to pursue a degree in public health?
As an undergraduate, I studied policy management and then spent five years as a business strategy consultant. I got involved in policy and business plan development for healthcare companies, hospitals, and governmental organizations at both the local and national level that were trying to develop strategies to make communities healthier. Through this experience, I realized the need for evidence-based public health education and communication from various perspectives, and my interest in the field got even stronger.
Healthcare in Japan is really great. I think it's one of the best in the world, but public health was embedded in medicine for many years. We got our first public health school in 2000, so formally studying public health is a new thing in Japan.
I felt that there was a huge need for public health and prevention intervention and that there were very few people connecting academia, business, and policy in that space. I thought that maybe if I learned about how I could contribute to connecting those areas, I could help make change happen.
Path to HBS and BSPH
How did you find your way to the Bloomberg School and HBS?
When I was searching for public health programs, I was in Tokyo. I searched the Bloomberg School’s website, and then I talked with a few people who had already completed public health degrees in the U.S.
I figured that I would be most interested in doing social behavioral sciences work. I found the MSPH in Health Education and Health Communication program when I was looking at a lot of different schools, and it seemed like the program would be a great fit for me, but I wasn't sure yet. So, I came to the U.S. and visited schools, including Hopkins.
I met with admissions, and I attended some classes. I enjoyed the environment, especially observing the atmosphere of the classrooms. I really liked Hopkins because students were friendly, helping each other, and not competitive. The professors were friendly too, and I felt that faculty here liked teaching students.
Research and Academic Opportunities
When you reflect on your time as a student in HBS, what are some academic highlights that come to mind?
At the Bloomberg School, terms are shorter, and the speed of the classes is very fast. But because of the term system, I was able to be exposed to more areas in public health. I was able to understand more about what public health has to offer and learn more about tools and resources to do both practice and research.
Many of my classes were really practice based. They covered important theories and were of course very informative, but a lot of classes involved actual projects—planning, disseminating, and implementing them.
I think the most memorable course for me was the Health Communications Programs series taught by Dr. Doug Storey. We learned theories and how to develop interventions in the first term. Then, in the next term we developed health communication programs through interventions that target students. We went on to actually implement and evaluate them. It was a lot of work. But we learned a lot and got to experience how going through the process would feel.
Another thing that I thought was great about Hopkins was that there’s a variety of faculty. Whenever I discovered a new area of interest, there would always be faculty who studied it.
When you reflect on your time at the Bloomberg School, what’s a public health practice highlight that comes to mind?
For my practicum, I worked at the Johns Hopkins Hospital at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, in the breast cancer division. I worked on cancer survivorship communication under Ms. Elissa Thorner.
I worked with a lot of doctors, nurses, and patient navigators as we developed targeted health education programs. We developed a lot of materials, for example online live talks where patients could ask questions and learn about steps related to living with cancer.
I also worked with other faculty on research around survivorship. During that time, I also worked with faculty in the School of Medicine as well, which I think helped to strengthen my knowledge of the healthcare space.
Navigating Cross-Cultural Transitions
What was it like to transition to living and learning in the U.S.?
Japan and the U.S. are very different. The transition was quite a journey. Learning something new in a foreign language is obviously not easy and can be challenging. Since there are many cultural differences as well, there were times when I felt that maybe I was awkward, or not doing the right things. But, with time, a lot of people told me that I could just be me.
I got to learn more about how to communicate with people and how to balance being myself — acknowledging that my identity is important while also knowing that immersing myself in a new culture is important as well.
You’re now pursuing a PhD at George Washington University. What motivated you to seek further training?
I got into the PhD program right after I finished my master’s degree. Through my MSPH practicum, I worked on both public health practice and research. I was writing some manuscripts I hoped to publish in academic journals, and during that time, I realized that I wanted to gain more expertise and training.
Then, during my second year of my master’s program, COVID happened. When I finished my master’s, I knew that I wanted to learn more about public health, especially on the research side. I’m now in the PhD in Social and Behavioral Sciences in Public Health program.
Tell us more about the current research and practice work you’re doing and where you see yourself moving forward.
I’ve been able to learn more about developing research in social behavioral sciences, as well as practice.
I'm currently working as a research associate for an NCI-granted project looking at the dose-response effect of digital media intervention for vaping prevention among young adults. The strength of digital media is that it can change quickly, so the feedback loop is quicker for each individual. I thought it would be interesting to look at digital media interventions and learn more about how interventions can be tailored to individuals, communities, or cultures. That's what I'm working on now.
Moving forward, I see myself connecting evidence with business and policy and combining my experience as a strategy consultant and a public health specialist.
How have you utilized the skills you built as a Bloomberg School student in your post-grad life?
While I was at Hopkins, I started a nonprofit in Japan. I started working with Japanese students from schools around the country and in Japan on HPV vaccine promotion in Japan. During that project, I applied what I learned at Hopkins to a real-world situation.
Japan’s HPV vaccination acceptance rate was around 70 percent initially. The government suspended the proactive promotion soon after its start due to the spread of unscientific information and a failure to build trust among citizens. People then lost opportunities to learn about the availability of the HPV vaccine, the subsidies, and the cost. For many years, the HPV vaccination rates stayed under 1 percent, which deeply concerned us because the HPV vaccine helps to prevent cervical cancer.
Together with a public health student at Harvard, we launched “Minpapi Association.” The organization works to disseminate HPV vaccine information through collaborations with academic societies, reporters, doctors, and a lot of other people.
It’s been about two years since we started the initiative. Just recently, the government has changed its policy regarding the active promotion of the HPV vaccine. Of course, a lot of different factors went into that policy shift, but even so, learning public health as an international student allowed me to be a part of that change.
Advice for Current Public Health Students
What advice do you have for current public health students at the Bloomberg School?
Don't be afraid to challenge yourself and explore new areas. I sometimes got scared of taking courses or working on research I wasn’t familiar with. I thought it might be too difficult or it might be too advanced, but when I look back on my time at Hopkins, those challenging courses and experiences were the most valuable things.
It’s also so important to be good friends with your cohort mates. I met such a diverse range of people, and even though we’ve dispersed since graduation, we still check in with each other and learn new things from each other – from career tips to public health developments.
This interview has been edited and compressed. Views expressed are the subject's own.