Leyla Merlo graduated in May 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in public health science and a minor in sustainability studies. While at the University of Maryland, Leyla was the president of ROOTS Africa, a student organization that works to promote sustainable agricultural practices in developing countries. She traveled to Liberia with the program, and received an award from the Do Good Institute for her work.
Leyla also worked with researchers in the school's Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health, where she studied environmental exposures to air pollutants and pesticides in U.S. Latino communities. As a McNair Scholar, Leyla was able to give both oral and poster presentations on her research.
Since graduation, Leyla has been working for the Horowitz Center for Health Literacy, where she is working with a team developing a smartphone app to promote health in African American and Latinx communities.
Leyla was selected as a Payne International Development Fellow, where she will receive funding to enter graduate school, pursue internships and fellowships, and transition into a career with the foreign service. Leyla is pursuing a Master of Arts in International Development with a concentration in Global Health at the George Washington University at the Elliot School of International Affairs.
In one sentence, what is public health to you?
Public health is so broad and large, it’s hard to describe. Public health is merging diverse interdisciplinary expertise to solve population health problems. It focuses on the promotion of health for all and the prevention of disease.
What inspired you to study public health?
For a long time, I wasn’t really sure what to pursue. I’ve always been interested in health, but I wasn’t sure whether to focus on individual or population-based health.
One day I heard the words public health and did some research. Its multidisciplinary nature intrigued me —you can approach public health from so many different angles! I loved the opportunity to be able to learn about community health, environmental health and all of the different components to the field. Public health being so broad is really what brought me into the major.
What do you think is the biggest challenge that the public health field should be focusing on?
One of the biggest challenges is health literacy. Many times people don’t have access to the right information about their health or don’t have the tools to understand it.
When people have conversations with their doctors about their health condition, they often don’t understand the jargon and medical language. But, with the appropriate language and tools, they can use the information and apply it to their health and well being.
Right now, I am working on developing an app that is tailored to African American and Latinx communities. It allows them to set goals, find clinics near their homes and understand their conditions. We’re using technology so that everyone can understand their health.
Why did you choose public health at UMD?
For one, I was born and raised in Silver Spring, Maryland. I saw there was a great public health program at the University of Maryland, and loved that it was close to home. As an only child, there’s only my mom and me at home, and I wanted to stay close to her while pursuing my passion for public health. I also loved the diversity of the school, the great faculty and the many different opportunities that the University of Maryland provides. It really was a combination of these factors that made me come to Maryland to study public health.
How has the public health science program shaped your career goals?
The program helped me develop multiple skillsets, and has given me a knowledge base about community health and environmental health. The material and skillsets that I learned helped me to become interested in international development.
ROOTS Africa was the turning point in my career that made me decide I wanted to pursue development. I had an experience in Liberia where we worked with farmers to increase sustainable practices in agriculture. We connected institutions in the United States to institutions abroad to empower farmers and students to grow crops productively.
My trip to Liberia really cemented my passion to pursue development. I received a Do Good award for my involvement with ROOTS, and I began applying for fellowships that would ultimately help me reach my career goal of working in international development.
What person or experience had the greatest impact on you during your degree program?
It was the trip to Liberia, mostly because of my observations in the communities and villages, and just being able to converse with people and learn about their cultures.
I had a particularly memorable experience when I presented on maternal health and food safety to an audience of all women. It was very difficult but also extremely rewarding. I loved being able to share that experience with the Liberian women and help them grow their knowledge base.
It just made me think there is so much I can do, so much I want to do to help others to improve their health. It was an emotional experience that really showed me how much I love this work.