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Student Showcase: Sarah Pollock


Meet Sarah Pollock


Second-year HBS student, Sarah Pollock, reflects on transitioning from the bench sciences to the social sciences, maximizing opportunities as a public health student, and pursuing her interest in harm reduction, substance use, and HIV prevention research.

Public Health Journey

What sparked your interest in public health?
As an undergraduate, I majored in biochemistry and molecular biology. I was on track to pursue an MD/PhD in cancer immunotherapy, so all my training up until that point had been focused on the bench sciences and biomedical research world.

I was part of the honors college at my undergrad institution, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. They have a strong emphasis there on historical and social justice issues in Baltimore. I took courses focused on HIV/AIDS and alcohol and drug policy, as well as other classes centered around race, poverty, and gender, which helped me to discover my interest in public health.  

From there, I started getting engaged with community organizations in Baltimore, where I was part of initiatives to empower students to become civic leaders and develop social justice-based projects. I also started looking to build my experience in the field of public health. I interned in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the School of Public Health, where I worked with Dr. Beth McGinty. After graduation, I worked at the School of Medicine with Dr. Gail Daumit on psychiatric rehabilitation programs focused on improving the physical health of people with serious mental illness. That was a great, hands-on, full-time public health work experience.  

Then, I moved to the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, also in the School of Medicine. I worked at the Center for Learning and Health. At the time, I was trying to figure out what my specific interests were. I learned about harm reduction and the opioid overdose crisis when I first started working with Beth McGinty, but supporting the Center for Learning and Health gave me some great exposure to behavioral interventions and contingency management focused on substance use and HIV. My interest in that space has grown from there.

What was it like to make the transition from studying biochemistry and molecular biology as an undergraduate to studying the social sciences as a graduate student?

I would say that the experience was very welcoming. My work experience had really solidified my interest in public health research, so I was very excited to come in and train at the graduate level, especially in HBS. 

When I was trying to figure out my path forward as an undergraduate, there were times when I was very frustrated and considered switching my major. But I decided to stick with it, and I’ve come to appreciate having a medical, biological understanding of some of these diseases we study, like HIV for instance. I think it makes me a little unique, even though it can be intimidating sometimes, especially when training alongside people with public health or social sciences backgrounds who’ve been in the field since they've been undergraduate students. Still, I think it's all about perspective, and we can all learn from each other.

Pathway to HBS and BSPH

What led you to join the Department of Health, Behavior and Society?

I aim to pursue a PhD in social and behavioral sciences, so I was drawn to HBS because it perfectly aligns with my long-term academic goals. The MHS in Social Factors in Health is research-focused while exposing students to quantitative and qualitative research and encouraging research methods training.

How have you built a sense of community during your time with HBS?

I absolutely love the HBS community. I think it's the best Department in the School of Public Health. I have to give a lot of credit to HBS, too, for helping me to find that community because I think the Department does a great job of fostering community, even within my program. Our program director is always encouraging us to meet up with each other outside of class and talk to each other. Even during the first year when everything was remote, I think we did a good job of keeping in touch. 

I came into the MHS knowing I wanted to pursue doctoral training, so I also sought out mentorship from doctoral students as well. Connecting across programs was easy because when you're a first-year master’s student, you're taking classes with the first year PhD students anyways. They're all just so lovely and supportive and willing to talk, and I consider a lot of them good friends. I've also been able to build a broader network through my research at the Lighthouse with Dr. Karin Tobin. 

Research and Academic Opportunities

Would you tell us more about how you first got involved with the Lighthouse?

I love working at the Lighthouse Studies at Peer Point in HBS. I was in the Sociological Perspectives on Health course with one of Karin Tobin’s advisees, who realized that I had a lot of similar interests. I met with Karin virtually, and we both thought the Lighthouse would be a good fit for me. I started working for Karin during the second term of my first year.

At the Lighthouse, I work on quantitative and qualitative studies that aim to improve health among people who use drugs, people living with HIV, and people experiencing homelessness. My research interests are in the harm reduction and substance use/HIV prevention areas, so the Lighthouse is an optimal setting to gain research skills and work with faculty in these areas.

What are some of the research projects you’ve worked on as a member of the Lighthouse team?

The main study that I've been working on is called Project STAR. It's a peer-based intervention for Black, sexual minority men focused on HIV and STI prevention. Participants are trained as peer mentors and given information about HIV prevention and education, with the idea that they can take that to information to their community and be a source of knowledge, education, and support. We also provide participants with free HIV and STI testing kits. My role is to screen participants, then get them enrolled into the study, randomized, and connected to their health coach. There's also the quantitative portion of it, so I help with cleaning the data and reviewing it to see what we can analyze. 

I've also been very fortunate to have the experience to work on some qualitative studies. I worked on a project where we were interviewing trans women who had experienced homelessness in partnership with community organizations in Los Angeles. It’s been exciting to collaborate with them to conduct the interviews to evaluate their supportive housing program. Through the project, I’ve been able to work with the Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention team. I've always wanted to get more experience in that area as a member of the AAPI community myself.

What are some of academic highlights you’ve experienced as a student at BSPH?

I really like the way the courses are set up in HBS. You have your core courses, but then you also have the flexibility to kind of choose elective courses. One of the core courses I took was Sociological Perspectives on Health with Dr. Zoé Hendrickson. She is so amazing, and I'm so happy that she teaches that course. It also provides you with so many foundational concepts that you're going to use for a lot of other courses.

Since I'm interested in harm reduction, I also took a harm reduction course with Dr. Karin Tobin and Dr. Susan Sherman. A lot of students who came into that course already had experience in the harm reduction space, so you learn so much from your classmates. Karin and Susan are obviously experts in their fields, so the class can either provide a great introduction to harm reduction or further your knowledge and understanding of the field.

Advice for Prospective Public Health Students

What advice do you have for prospective or incoming public health students, especially students like yourself who are transitioning to the field from backgrounds outside of public health?

I think it can be important to talk to experts in the fields you think you might be interested in to establish that initial connection. I also think it’s helpful to get some real-world public health experience. Generally, though, I would say just be open-minded. Expose yourself to a wide range of knowledge because Hopkins has so much to offer, so maximize the opportunities that you have.

Interests and Hobbies

Aside from public health, what are some of your hobbies, interests, and personal passions?

I have a rescue pup named Meadow and enjoy taking long walks with her and meeting other doggies! I am a big foodie and love eating delicious ethnic foods and getting boba. I’m really excited that live performances are coming back because I love Broadway and music theatre.

This interview has been edited and compressed. Views expressed are the subject's own.