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The impact of the "global hub" at Williams Hall: An interview with Professor Kelly Austin

Dr. Kelly Austin is a Professor of Sociology and core faculty member for Global Studies at Lehigh University. She is also Director of Lehigh’s Health Medicine and Society Program (HMS), one of the most popular interdisciplinary programs on campus with almost 200 students. Most of her research focuses on health outcomes in developing nations, specifically Uganda. She also studies health disparities in South Side Bethlehem. Next fall, Dr. Austin will be traveling across campus to join colleagues from the Office of Interdisciplinary Programs and several globally-oriented departments, in Lehigh’s new “global hub,” Williams Hall. 
Q. Tell us about your research. 
A. I’m interested in the global distribution of diseases like HIV, TB, and malaria. I focus on how environmental changes and social inequality impact disease transmission and treatment. Most of my fieldwork is in rural Uganda where I look at the influence of international health aid, including NGOs like the Red Cross and agencies like USAID, assessing if they are effective at addressing health needs in the community. I look at this across dimensions of preventative care, emergency responses (to incidents like landslides), primary healthcare, and hospital care.
Q. Do students travel with you? 
A. I take students with me on all my trips to Uganda; I’ve been 3 times in the last 18 months. One of the trips was funded through Lehigh’s Sustainable Development program. I also take students doing independent research projects through grants such as the Strohl Scholarship and GELH. Sometimes they assist me in my research. I think these experiences are really beneficial to students. It’s really important if you study global inequalities to be somewhere where you can see the level of health disparities. These opportunities help students understand the sources of global health disparities, seeing where people live without paved roads, electricity, or clean water. I’m returning next summer with 4 students from the Iacocca Internship program, as well as additional students working on independent projects.
Q. How will this work be affected by your move to Williams Hall?
A. HMS is a really popular program and it just started in 2008, so it’s only been alive 5 or 6 years. One thing is that we’ll be working closely with the south side Bethlehem community and we’ve obtained information from the Lehigh Valley Needs Assessment which points to some key areas of need regarding mental health and chronic disease. HMS will also engage with the community through the Center for Integrative Health that’s being established on 4th street. Our Social Science Research Center will be renamed when it moves to Williams Hall as the Graduate Research Center and can become a hub for the work being done in the community, giving students more solid research experience. The center will become a hub of creativity and innovation for students. Whether it’s health research on south-side Bethlehem or global health, it’s important to have this space for the students to conduct research.
Q. What do you want to say to the donors who have already made a gift in Williams Hall?
A. Thank you for your contribution. Without our donors, projects like these frankly aren’t possible. You’re intrinsic to the success of what we do here as teachers and mentors to the students. Having valuable space is so important to what we do. I feel like students currently come into a dilapidated building like this and feel isolated, it’s not a fun place where students want to take off their coat and stay a while. 
Q. What impact do you hope this renovation will have on Lehigh at large?
A. I think there’s a lot of potential for the work that’s being done in the HMS program to have impacts both locally and globally. The work being done by students and faculty potentially has groundbreaking findings. Being able to properly assess health interventions is crucial to addressing health inequalities. The space in Williams Hall is something that will have a global impact helping us improve people’s well-being. Anything from policy changes to best practices could result from the work that’s being done here. 
Q. How will students benefit from the move into Williams Hall?
A. The fact that there will be dedicated space for students to hang out and work together in the research center is great. They’ll be able to foster more ideas, really be engaged and think globally and critically as they’re exposed to the different media sources. It’s my understanding the Global Commons will have all sorts of screens with channels to the BBC, Al Jazeera and things we wouldn’t normally have access to. There could be potential research projects following news reports on things like Ebola and other really important global health issues—having access to not just US-based media outlets, but diverse news programs. There could be space for speakers, poster sessions, all of that would be extremely valuable for learning and experiential research activities.
Q. What are you most looking forward to?
A. I would definitely enjoy running programming in the Global Commons space. I love the idea of running programs right outside my door—having space with all the right things like food, media, technology. There aren’t many places on campus where all those things come together. 
Dr. Austin is the sole author of an article on urban slums and malaria and TB in less developed countries (in press) which will be published in the next edition of Sociological Perspectives. For more information about Dr. Austin, go to For more information on Williams Hall go to
Posted on Thursday, January 22, 2015