The Global Health Institute (GHI) and the Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching, and Service have selected Sydney Blackston (SON ’25) as the inaugural recipient of the Maeve McKean Global Health Award.
Full disclosure: Sydney Blackston serves as a Guide Staff Writer for The Hoya.
The fellowship commemorates Maeve McKean (GRD ’09), a lawyer who spent her career working at the intersection of global health and human rights and, until her death in April 2020, served as executive director of the Georgetown University Global Health Initiative.
McKean Fellows will work on a faculty mentor’s research project during their junior year, before embarking on independent research in the summer before their senior year. In 2024, Blackston will travel to Canada to study the effects of recent wildfires on the health of Indigenous peoples.
Blackston believes the intersection of global health and humanitarian issues is important, given that health care disparities are a major source of global inequality.
“I think we do need to talk about human rights and global health together. So much of our world is shaped by our health care, and in this country and other countries, it’s so sad to see that some people don’t have access to quality health care,” Blackston told The Hoya.
Blackston chose to focus her research on health care access in Canada’s Indigenous communities because those populations are disproportionately impacted by environmental crises despite contributing the least to climate change, historically.
“Climate change is affecting everyone, but at this particular intersection, it affects Indigenous people the most,” Blackston said. “I think it’s really ironic that in conversations about climate change, Indigenous people are often cut out.”
“Indigenous groups often have the most deep understanding of the ecosystem and the ways that we can help it,” Blackston said. “They live their lives with an understanding that you have to give back. They should be part of the solutions and part of the discussion.”
In her research project, Blackston will collect several types of data from Indigenous communities in order to understand how health systems — as well as the Indigenous peoples whom they serve — responded to devastating wildfires that began in June 2023 in Canada.
“I’d like to conduct observational research, conduct interviews, and be able to understand the system and how Indigenous communities interact with health care and the damage of climate change,” Blackston said.
This semester, Blackston will conduct global research with Jessica Kritz, an assistant professor in the department of global health, before launching her independent research project next summer. Kritz’s work focuses on the ties between climate disasters and inequality in Ghana, where workers in the informal sector — people who provide essential services, such as electronic waste recycling, without signing a work contract — face growing hardships as a result of the environmental crisis.
The McKean Fellowship’s mission and Blackston’s research proposal are indicative of an increasing push in global health towards a human rights-based approach, according to Kritz.
“Sydney represents the next generation of health leaders: change agents who believe health involves all aspects of wellbeing,” Kritz told The Hoya. “We are grateful to Maeve’s family for the opportunity for Sydney and the Georgetown undergraduates who follow her to contribute to the important and growing field of health and human rights.”
Blackston said she is excited about assisting with Kritz’s research, as it aligns with her interests in under-resourced communities and disparities in global health. She hopes that such research can have an appreciable impact on people who, because of preexisting inequities, will suffer the most as a result of climate change.
“We’re putting research out there about climate change and the ways that it’s affecting human rights, health care, and underserved communities,” Blackston said. “That research facilitates conversation. It facilitates legislation, it facilitates important things that need to be done in order to solve those problems.”