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Pandas, pandemics, and public health: A fond farewell to the O’Neill Institute

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Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there was a young law student. She felt lost and alone, realizing that she didn’t want to practice at Big Soulless Law Firm, Inc, but unsure about what else to do.
She did enjoy her course in public health, however, and wondered if there might be a way to combine this interest with her law degree. After a cursory search of the online catalogue, she ventured into a quiet section of the law library. There, on the bottom shelf, she found a book called Public Health Law: Power, Duty, Restraint, by a certain Lawrence O. Gostin. Well, she thought, that’s a thing. Maybe that’s something I can do.
Fast forward ten years, and that student finished her law degree, got a PhD,  and came to work for the O’Neill Institute. She also got sick of writing in the third person.
I’ve only had a year at the O’Neill Institute, but what a year it’s been. Working for the Institute was a dream come true – literally. I could talk about my inspiring colleagues, the interesting and challenging work, or the many food trucks just around the corner from Georgetown Law, but rather than bore you with the details, here’s a roundup of ten favorite memories from my time in DC.

1. Pandas

If you’ve walked past my cubicle recently, you might think that I have a deep and abiding love for the panda bear. You are wrong.
I made fun of my boyfriend’s objection to the ‘Panda cam’ at the National Zoo, and he began a campaign of retaliation, sending me a series of panda-themed presents. Unfortunately this year-long joke went viral, with friends, family and colleagues all making donations to the cause.  Remember ladies, nothing says love like a matching panda hat, scarf, slippers, earmuffs, hand puppet, necklace, t-shirt, bento box, coin purse, stethoscope, and three stuffed panda toys.
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2. Zombies

As a junior academic I have a modest collection of publications – a doctoral thesis, a book chapter, some conference papers and a number of peer-reviewed articles. My blog post on the zombie apocalypse remains the most read thing I’ve ever written.[Crown]-Keep-Calm-And-Eat-Spicy-Brains

3. McDonald’s

This year, I ate McDonald’s for the first time in years. I’m not going to lie to you – it was delicious. I was like an ex-smoker taking her first puff after years of quitting.
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4. DC Nerd Nite

Before I get fired, let me promise you that I ate McDonald’s for a good cause. In May I presented at Nerd Nite, lawyering up the food industry’s code on responsible marketing to children, and exposing Big Food’s dastardly advertising practices. A week later I spoke at the EU Summit on Chronic Diseases to an audience of European health ministers, NGOs, consumer advocates, academics, and industry representatives. Getting up on stage in front of a bunch of drunken nerds was far more terrifying.
nerd nite

5. Seventeenth St High Heel Race

2013-2014 was the best of times and the blurst of times for gay rights. US courts have been toppling same-sex marriage bans like dominos, but Uganda passed a law creating harsh penalties for homosexuality (later struck down by the constitutional court) and Russia introduced an LGBT propaganda law. Fortunately, LGBT activism is alive and kicking in DC – or running down the street in stilettos, as the case may be. Here I make friends with one of the participants in the annual 17th Street High Heel Race.
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6. Thanksgivukkah

 There’s only one thing better than Thanksgiving, and that’s the once-in-a-lifetime super-mega-holiday created when Thanksgiving and Hanukkah fall on the same day. I experienced American generosity firsthand when my dear friend Ilana invited me to spend Thanksgivukkah with her and her family in Charlottesville. I apologise profusely for eating the leftover pumpkin pie at 1am in the morning.

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Ilana Sinkin: Crack Lawyer, Master Chef

7. Great Falls Park

America! You’re stereotyped for gas-guzzling monster trucks, super-sized highways and ubiquitous suburbs. But you have some of the most magnificent green spaces on the planet. My suggestion for beating the obesity epidemic? Get off the couch and go visit one of the country’s stupendous national parks. The Gostins graciously invited the Institute to their house for brunch earlier this year, with Larry leading a walk to the Great Falls Park beforehand. He set a cracking pace – hike with him and you’ll lose ten pounds instantly, I swear.

8. Karaoke night

The O’Neill Institute practices the moderate, responsible use of Karaoke.

Anonymous members of the O'Neill Institute

Anonymous members of the O’Neill Institute

9. Meeting the Obamas

OK, so this didn’t actually happen. But I’m still here for another two weeks – just call me! I’m available any time!

The First Family

The First Family

10. The O’Neill Institute Family

The Maori people of New Zealand (my home country) have a saying: “He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.” What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people. I’m grateful to Timothy and Linda O’Neill for establishing the O’Neill Institute, and for filling it with some of the kindest, warmest and most intelligent people in public health law. From Larry’s immense energy, to Dan’s calm, and Alex’s enthusiasm – I will miss you all. Just as much as you’ll miss my panda collection, I’m sure.

The O'Neill Institute Family (a selection)

The O’Neill Institute Family (a selection)

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