On my year as a Fung Fellow

Kamu Potharaju, an alumna of the 2019–20 Fung Fellowship cohort, reflects on her experience as a fellow upon finishing her junior year at UC Berkeley.

A group of around 30 young adults sit on grass.
An adorable cohort picture from our bootcamp back in August. :’)

I’ve never had a more anticlimactic last day of school. A “Submit” button replaced the triumphant walk out of a lecture hall after my last final, and just like that, I was done with my third (!) year at Berkeley. I’m still not ready to process the bittersweet emotions that come with becoming a senior, so for now, I’m still reminiscing on the memories of junior year. Between the ups and downs, I experienced an incredible amount of personal growth, started feeling more comfortable than ever at Berkeley, and began really figuring out what exactly I want to do with my life after graduation next year. I have a lot to reflect on, and even more to be grateful for.

One of the most formative experiences this year — of my time at Berkeley, really — was the Fung Fellowship. Like many other fellows, I had a lot of questions coming into the program, and repeated Google searches did not offer me any answers. I still remember meeting the fellows for the first time at our bootcamp in August; every conversation eventually evolved into, “Do you know exactly what we’re going to be doing this year?” Now that I’ve been through the program, I can now confidently describe the fellowship: a space for ideation.

This program has been so unlike anything else I’ve experienced at Berkeley that it’s no surprise we all found it difficult to understand at the start. Twice a semester, someone came into our lecture hall at Jacobs, telling us about a problem that their organization was trying to solve; this year, the challenges always circled back to the issue of social isolation. Split up into teams of five or six, we spent a month or two trying to come up with a creative solution, so that our partner organization could eventually synthesize all our different ideas and put it to work. Along the way, we were lucky enough to hear from some amazing and inspiring guest speakers, from whom we learned about everything ranging from blockchain to the intersection of art and medicine.

I always thought human-centered design was something meant for people specializing in UI/UX work, but I’ve since realized that it’s really just a framework for creating something — a medication adherence program, or a college connection platform — that better suits the needs of the people using it. To me, it’s all about identifying the “pain points” in a user’s journey and addressing them. Equally important is the concept of storytelling — amplifying the compelling experiences and stories of the people around us to explain why there needs to be change. Aside from absorbing a design mindset this year, I’ve been pushed by my teammates and our mentors to expand my thinking as much as possible, truly testing the bounds of my creativity.

I’ve also been challenged to step out of my comfort zone — attending a hackathon, traversing a ropes course in Strawberry Canyon despite my fear of heights, or even just overcoming my social anxiety by talking to a stranger. From prototyping with Figma to pitching and decking, I tried my hand at skills that none of my public health classes would have exposed me to. In many ways, this fellowship has been a huge source of personal and professional growth for me.

4 young adults pose in front of balloons that read “Health Hacks.”
4 young adults pose in front of balloons that read “Health Hacks.”
Attending a health hackathon at Stanford in October with some other fellows. We won a prize from Stanford Emergency Medicine International for our work on a low-tech connection platform for socially isolated elderly women in LMIC.

I am thankful for the fellowship partially for the range of experiences that have already served me well in job interviews, but more so for the lessons in interdisciplinary collaboration. Given that the program is sponsored by the School of Public Health, I expected to be surrounded by fellow public health majors… yet there were only seven of us! That meant the other 39 fellows came from a wide array of backgrounds and majors; there would almost never be more than one public health major on a team.

In lecture, I sat next to people that I wouldn’t have encountered in any of my other classes. (One of those people was my freshman year roommate, Nikita, who is a computer science major — we never thought we would have a class together in our four years at Berkeley.) I learned to work across the aisle with people who had a great deal of knowledge of things I had never heard about, but also to value my own experiences and be confident in what I brought to the table.

A group of around 15 young adults pose for a photo in front of a brick wall.
A group of around 15 young adults pose for a photo in front of a brick wall.
A self-timed group selfie during our Year 1 Retreat in January.

What I took away from the remarkable interdisciplinary nature of the program was more than the fact that there existed an overlap between public health, design, and technology. It was that there needed to be that overlap, because no field exists in a vacuum. Public health is faced with countless obstacles that stem from every corner of society; our current situation with COVID-19 could not be a more blatant example.

However, I think this type of collaboration requires more than just bringing in engineers and designers to the table when discussing healthcare reform. It requires training all these diverse stakeholders in the most fundamental aspect of human-centered design: empathy. Regardless of your background, you cannot design anything for your user without genuinely considering their needs and, more importantly, asking for their input. The humble question, “What do you think?” is an incredibly powerful tool (interview questions are generally more sophisticated than that, but that’s the essence of it all).

Equipping people from every field with the lens of empathy and equity is crucial. Even if they are not going to go onto work in healthcare, I do know that all of my classmates will go on to transform their respective fields in ways that reflect the human-centered mindset that we are leaving the fellowship with. This year, we’ve learned that our voices, though important, are secondary to those of our community members and users during the design process, and to leverage our privilege and connections to uplift those who would not be heard otherwise. This is what excites me: the possibility of a whole generation of entrepreneurs, engineers, and leaders who are taught to genuinely think beyond profit margins to the wellbeing of the people whose lives they have the privilege to shape.

While my fellowship journey ended with our final showcase last week, my work in applying design methodologies to public health continues. In a few weeks, I’ll be getting a head start on my undergraduate honors thesis, thanks to a summer fellowship from Berkeley’s Office of Undergraduate Research. I’ll be working with the Lyles Lab from the UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populations on a project examining the social and environmental influences on diabetes self-management among low-income San Franciscans, and how an understanding of these factors can better inform the design of a personalized health library platform.

I’m really excited about this project because it ties together some of the most important experiences from my time at Berkeley — the Fung Fellowship and its lessons on human-centered design; my work as a medical scribe at Tom Waddell Urban Health Clinic in the Tenderloin, one of the clinics involved in this study; and the knowledge of community-centered advocacy from my time as a GPP minor. I know I’ll learn a lot from my thesis journey, and I’m looking forward to sharing a lot about it.

Of the many good things that have happened to me at Berkeley so far, being a part of this fellowship cohort was definitely one of them. I am grateful for the people I met and for the lessons I learned — particularly Jaspal, Mariela, Adrienne, Jennifer, and the Honors Fellows for their incredible support through it all. If there is one thing I know about Fung Fellows, it’s that they are all going to make the world a better place, and I can’t wait to see it.

About the Author

Kamu is a recent alumna of the 2019–20 Fung Fellowship cohort, studying public health and global poverty and practice. She is deeply passionate about the intersection of medicine, public health, design, and poverty alleviation, and hopes to pursue an MD/MPH after graduation. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, writing, and going on long walks (sometimes, but not always, on the beach).

Connect with Kamu or visit her blog, where this piece was originally published.

Applications for the Fung Fellowship are now open for the UC Berkeley transfer class of 2022 until July 31, 2021.

Learn more about the Fung Fellowship at fungfellows.berkeley.edu.

The Fung Fellowship at UC Berkeley is shaping the next generation of health, conservation, and technology leaders for a better world. 🌱

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