Meet Your Public Health Ambassadors!
In August 2017, the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH) announced the inaugural cohort of “This is Public Health” Ambassadors. Representatives from 13 different schools and programs were selected through an application process to serve for one academic year as “ambassadors” for public health.
Ambassadors help elevate awareness of public health research and its impact on individuals, communities and whole populations. Additionally, ambassadors serve as liaisons for prospective students of public health, helping them identify potential academic paths and opportunities. They attend graduate school fairs and host webinars to answer questions from prospective students, and participate in social media takeovers to give new perspectives on various paths in public health.
Two Bloomberg School students, Katie Overbey and Benjamin Ackerman, are among the first contingent of ambassadors. Here, they share their (sometimes circuitous!) paths to public health, what they love most and where they tell Baltimore newcomers to visit in Charm City.
- DEGREE: PhD, Biostatistics
- HOMETOWN: Los Angeles, CA
- RESEARCH FOCUS: My dissertation research will hopefully involve statistical methods related to randomized trials, specifically about the generalizability of randomized trials.
Tell us what sparked your interest in public health and what you did prior to coming to JHSPH.
I did my undergraduate degree at Johns Hopkins in public health. In my freshman year, I was enrolled in an anthropology class and interested in some of the books we read about the spread of HIV/AIDS through sexual networks. This was the first time I’d thought about health on a larger scale, and that prompted me to become a public health major.
- What led you to pursue a degree at the Bloomberg School?
I formed close relationships with Hopkins professors and with T.A.’s who later became my classmates. I got a great sense that the people in the Biostatistics department were not only brilliant, but incredibly supportive and friendly, and cared more about students succeeding than about furthering their own careers.
- How have your mentors and advisers helped shape your experience?
I’ve been working with Liz Stuart and she’s been a really great mentor and adviser. I haven’t just learned things about the research topics. I’ve also learned about what it’s like to be a graduate student, to be an academic, to collaborate with others and to communicate effectively.
I certainly feel like the mentors that I’ve had [at Hopkins and at the Bloomberg School] and the faculty that I’ve engaged with have been incredibly invested in their students. I don’t know if other schools are similar, but I think it’s been a huge advantage at Hopkins to have professors who are incredible researchers and highly respected, who take time out of their busy schedules to get junior students involved and interested in their work as well.
- Did you have any moments that helped reaffirm your path in public health?
I’ve had a couple experiences that have reinforced that I am doing what I should be doing with my life. I worked on a paper with a professor in Epidemiology looking at differences in HIV risk among trans women compared to MSM (men who have sex with men) in sub-Saharan Africa. This is a highly understudied population, and I’ve always been really interested in researching LGBT health. It’s really cool to see that as a statistician, I’m having an impact on public health and research in an understudied population.
- Tell us about your role as an ambassador with This is Public Health.
It’s nice to have a platform to share with students what you can do with biostatistics and that you don’t have to come from a pure mathematics background to have a career in biostatistics or ... public health. I also felt it was important to be a voice of a biostatistics student to say, “We’re as much a part of public health and graduate student life as the rest.”
I think the bigger component of being an ambassador is exposing people who either don’t know much about or aren’t sure if they want to study public health to the many different ways they could pursue public health.
- Do you think being a This is Public Health ambassador has given you a broader platform to be a better mentor, and how has it shaped your time as a student here?
In the ambassador role, the more you communicate with prospective students about what they can do in your field, the more you reinforce your own passion for what you do. As you share with people why it is that you love what you do, you reflect on your own experiences.
- Describe your experiences connecting with students from other schools of public health and working with them to spread the message of public health.
It reinforces the idea that public health is very interdisciplinary and that people come from all different experiences and interests for one purpose: to improve human health on a population level. So, it has been very interesting to meet students at other schools who have had very different paths to public health than I have.
Public health is incredibly diverse and exciting. You can find common ground in public health very easily.
- Do you have any plans for the future yet?
I don’t really have plans yet, but I do hope that, through my training as a biostatistician, I can use the skills I have to analyze data and use that to better inform people about critical health issues. I’m a huge advocate for more LGBT health research, so it would be great to continue to work in that area and surface issues for underrepresented populations that are either due to lack of data availability or lack of data analysis being conducted.
- What advice do you have for future public health students or public health undergrad students?
Learn how to be a good advocate for yourself. There are a lot of times when you may be interested in pursuing something or getting involved in a project. Those opportunities aren’t going to come to you. You have to reach out and seek those.
I would advise people to look for mentors and advisers who don’t just give research opportunities but also provide training and help you build the necessary skills to succeed in school and help with all the aspects of becoming a public health professional.
- What do you do in the city for fun?
There’s this pizza place near Patterson Park named Johnny Rad’s that I love going to. It’s my favorite place to bring friends. There are always new people coming into the department every year, so it’s always fun when they come into Baltimore and don’t know what’s going on. I say, “Let’s go to Johnny Rad’s, I’ll show you what’s up.”
- DEGREE: PhD, Environmental Health and Engineering (Recipient of the Kazuyoshi Kawata Fund in Sanitary Engineering and Science
- HOMETOWN: Yorktown, Virginia
- RESEARCH FOCUS: I study removal of norovirus in water systems, particularly water treatment systems.
What sparked your interest in public health and what did you do before you came to the School?
I’ve always been interested in science. In high school, I wanted to be a doctor. I went to undergrad at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and started as a biology major.
I later realized that while the science and the health aspects appealed to me, I wasn’t interested in one-on-one patient care. On a whim, I enrolled in an environmental microbiology class through the school of public health [UNC Gillings]. Before that point, I didn’t know that public health was an option as a career field, and it ended up being a perfect fit. I became interested in communication and, realizing how poor some scientists are at it, it was important to me in public health.
- What led you to pursue your degree here?
It’s hard to look for schools of public health and not come across the Hopkins name! But a big part of it was my adviser, Kellogg Schwab. He does a lot of water quality research, which is what I wanted to do. I liked the research coming out of his lab, and I liked his advising style, so that had a big impact.
The resources that Hopkins has, the connections with the medical school and with other universities and organizations, those were also a big draw. I knew there would be a lot of options and opportunities if I came here.
- What is your research focus here at the School?
I’ll be studying norovirus, a foodborne illness that some call a stomach flu or winter vomiting bug. I will probably be looking at removal of norovirus in water systems, particularly water treatment systems. There are some recent developments in the technology used to detect norovirus, so that opens up a lot of conveniently timed options for my PhD.
- How has your relationship with your adviser shaped your work, and how do you see that impacting your PhD?
It’s definitely a really big driver in my degree experience. [Schwab’s] advising style and his interest in not just giving me lab skills but helping me become an actual functional scientist has been really important.
He wants you to learn how to read papers, how to write papers, how to communicate, how to develop a research plan that’s really well thought-out. Having an adviser that meshes with my goals as a scientist has been an important impact.
- Have you had any moments in the time you’ve been here that stand out, whether in the classroom or with friends or the community?
I think one of the things that was really impactful for me was the November 2017 Water is Life talk with the Center for American Indian Health. They convened a panel of Native American activists and leaders for the protection of water, and it was inspiring to hear them talk about pushing for different ways to fight climate change. As a person that studies water, it was really cool to hear.
- Is there anything that was surprising about coming to Hopkins? Did you have a preconceived notion about the School?
What I was hoping for—and what did happen—is that everyone I meet genuinely cares about what they’re doing. They’re not just at Hopkins for the Hopkins name; they’re here because they care about whatever aspect of health they’re working on and they really want to make a tangible difference.
- Do you think these experiences will help continually shape your career? Are there opportunities around the School to continually inspire you?
I think the diversity of people that Hopkins attracts is really one of its strengths. In Environmental Health and Engineering we have engineers, microbiologists, toxicologists, food systems people, and this mix of researchers who are all doing really different things.
I think [combining Environmental Health and Environmental Engineering] is a big benefit for both environmental health and public health. They enhance each other.
- What do you do outside of school?
I have two Scottish terriers that occupy a solid amount of my energy. I hang out with people in my program, which has been a lovely thing. I actually like these people as friends, which is great! I take a lot of advantage of the free yoga in Baltimore, which is great for coping with the stress of grad school. I live right by Patterson Park, which is perfect for the dogs. I love that park!
- What was your experience of moving to Baltimore?
I was a bit nervous about moving to Baltimore. I had been in North Carolina for six years, and everyone asked me if I’ve watched The Wire. But now, I love Baltimore. The city has its issues, but it really is a wonderful place. I love where I live. There’s a surprising sense of community. There’s great food, great bars, always a lot of stuff going on.
- Can you talk about your role with This is Public Health? What are some of the things you’ve been asked to do, and how did you hear about it?
It really interested me because I went into undergrad not knowing what public health was, and public health was actually the perfect fit for me.
My freshman year of undergrad, I asked an academic adviser, “I’m really interested in health, but I don’t want to be a doctor, do you have any ideas?” and she never mentioned public health! That really motivated me to want to do this, because it would have helped me knowing about public health earlier, and knowing what my options were.
As an ambassador, we help oversee some web chats where students can ask about applications and other aspects of public health grad school. If there are ASPPH career fairs nearby, we go to those, too. It’s a lot of outreach, plus there are Twitter chats throughout, and we will each do a social media takeover for a week.
- How do you feel that this experience has shaped your experience as a PhD student?
It’s almost like a “pay it forward” thing. It’s been nice to offer up my experiences and, hopefully, help other people who are looking to do similar things. It’s been cool to interact with people who are interested in public health and have questions.
- Do you feel like you’re talking to students who know they want to study public health, or do you feel more like an ambassador for public health as a whole?
In the activities that we’ve done so far—the career fair and the ASPPH online webinars—those students kind of already know they want to go into public health.
A lot of questions we got were, “What can I do with this degree? If I get this, where can I go with this? If I get X specialty versus another specialty, what can I do with it and what are my options?” These are really important question to ask because not only is public health a great field, there are so many different options and so many different choices.
- Do you have any plans for the future yet?
This past summer, a professor at a conference asked me what I wanted to do, and I gave my general response: “I don’t know what sector I want to work in, but I’m really interested in food and water microbiology and safety.”
The professor told me if I want to survive the PhD, I needed a strong goal. I brushed it off, and then the second year hit, and things started to go wrong in my research. This is the point where you really start getting into the nitty gritty of the PhD.
I realized I need to think harder about this. I spent the last few months talking to people I look up to who have a similar degree. I asked them about their jobs to get more insight into what they do and tried to narrow down what I want to do. The current trajectory is that I have a lot of interest in working in a government lab, in government epidemiology or outbreak investigation, something in that realm. Having a more specific idea has really motivated me.
It was surprisingly really, really great advice.
- Do you have any advice for future public health students, or students interested in environmental health specifically?
A big thing that helped me was talking to people! Talk to people and get their opinions about what they do or what they teach, or talk to professors who taught classes that you really enjoyed.
Graduate degrees are no joke, and even a master’s degree is a lot of time, a lot of money and a lot of energy. Really having an understanding of why you want it and what motivates you to get it when you go in will make you a stronger applicant.
This is a small field but [in public health], everyone knows everyone, which makes that networking piece so much more important. You never know who you might connect with and meet and what they might be doing in the future. My master’s adviser did her PhD with Dr. Schwab, it is a small world. That initial contact, even just getting a vibe of the department, was helpful.