Skip to main content

Student Spotlight: Catherine Clair on Leveraging Interdisciplinary Training and Understanding the Social-Medical Network’s Impacts on Older Adults


Meet Catherine Clair


Catherine Clair, a student in the Department of Health, Behavior and Society’s PhD in Social and Behavioral Sciences program, reflects on utilizing her interdisciplinary training, networking effectively, and receiving a 2022 Healthy Longevity Catalyst Award from the U.S. National Academy of Medicine to study the social-medical networks of older adults. 

  • Program: PhD in Social and Behavioral Sciences
  • Years with HBS: 2020 – present
  • Hometown: Odenton, Maryland
  • Fun fact: “I am a singer! During COVID, I was the cantor for our church, whether we were on Zoom, outside, or inside the chapel. It brought me a lot of joy to provide music during such a hard time for my community.”


Like many recently minted undergraduates, Catherine Clair, MHS, found herself at a crossroads after graduation. She had loved studying an interdisciplinary mix of anthropology and music performance. But when it came to deciding on the next steps in her educational and professional journey, she felt torn.

With help from her personal and professional networks – who noted her passion for mental health – Clair decided to pursue a Master of Health Science in Mental Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Soon after graduation, she started working full-time for the National Committee for Quality Assurance. As an analyst in their quality measurement and research group, Clair worked on the development and pre-development of healthcare quality measures that health plans could implement. While there, she contributed to initiatives related to everything from geriatrics to mental health and substance use.

In 2020, Clair returned to the Bloomberg School as a student in the Department of Health, Behavior and Society’s PhD in Social and Behavioral Sciences program. During her time with the program, she has leveraged her interdisciplinary training in her research, practice, and scholarship. In 2022, the U.S. National Academy of Medicine selected Clair to receive a 2022 Healthy Longevity Catalyst Award for her project: “The Social-Medical Network: Using a Network Approach to Explore the Integration of Informal and Formal Care Networks of Older Adults.”

Journeying Back to the Bloomberg School

How did you make the decision to return to the Bloomberg School after completing your MHS and working for the National Committee for Quality Assurance?

I had a wonderful mentor at work who told me, ‘If you enjoy what you're doing, it's okay to keep doing it.’ She recommended going back for more education ‘when there are questions you want to answer that you can't with your current education.’ That was really powerful for me. When I did apply for the PhD program in 2019, it was an intentional decision.

I think it was good to work in a non-academic space because I learned that I like the academic space more. But I think it was important to have that experience. I also think it's important to reflect on what makes the most sense for you and when you're ready to go back.

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

I had received guidance that HBS would be a great home for someone who was interested in primary data collection. Prior to applying, I spoke on the phone with Danielle German (the PhD program director). On that call, she treated me with respect and showed genuine interest in my research. I felt like HBS would be a place that promoted exploration of research interests.

What was it like to re-transition to the Bloomberg School and academia?

It was awesome! I enjoyed coming back so much. For me, coming back to academia for the PhD was fun. That's how I knew it was the right time and the right program and the right school—because it was such an enjoyable experience, and it still is.

I connected with some people that were still here, who I had worked with during my master’s program, and I connected with new people. I know everyone has a different experience, but for myself, I am just so much happier doing the PhD and being back at Hopkins.

Cultivating Community and Connecting Through Research

How have you built your sense of community during your time as an HBS student?

I have created a sense of community across Departments in BSPH and other schools in the University. It is rewarding to have friends and colleagues in HBS, Mental Health, HPM, and the School of Nursing. I have learned so much from all these people who bring different perspectives and frameworks to problems.

Would you talk more about your experience fostering collaborations outside of HBS and the Bloomberg School?

When I returned, I reached out to my master’s thesis advisor, Joe Gallo, in the Department of Mental Health.

He introduced me to Martha Abshire Saylor, in the School of Nursing, who was in the need of a research coordinator, and I started working on her study. I was working with her for a couple months, and then one of her colleagues in the School of Nursing, Janiece Taylor, needed a research coordinator, and Martha connected the two of us. I've been working for them since the beginning of 2021. It's been really great to work with their studies. They're both wonderful mentors and people to work for. The teams are different, but both teams are so invested in the work.

I always tell people to e-mail faculty and reach out to them. If they don't have any openings, you can ask if they can you give you the names of three faculty they would recommend you reach out to. Having those personal connections, even if it's just a little bit of a personal connection, it really does help. I know that it can be hard for people to just cold e-mail. But I also tell people that if someone doesn't respond, it is not a reflection on you or your e-mail. It's probably just that they're very busy.

Would you share more about each of the studies?

Martha’s study is a social support intervention for caregivers of persons living with heart failure. It involves five nurse visits over about a ten-week period. It includes activities like getting to know the caregiver, writing a life-purpose statement, social support circles and activities, and identifying your social network and instrumental support connections.

Janiece’s study is a behavioral intervention with older African American women living with pain and low mood. It is very much focused on setting goals related to pain and mood and learning different strategies to manage these symptoms through the goals set by the participant. That study is eight visits over about 12 weeks.

What impact have your cross-disciplinary connections had on your educational and professional development?

I love talking to people who are outside of public health or outside of BSPH. I think we all bring strengths to the table and have such different perspectives.

What I love about nursing is they’re very focused on caring about people: their patients, their participants. I love bringing that framing into public health. Sometimes we think very much on a population level, which is important. But at the same time, we need to remember that our participants in our research are people, and we need to care for them regardless of if we're doing qualitative or quantitative data collection.

I've really enjoyed learning that mentality and then bringing that way of thinking to my own work. Working in your Department, in your School, and outside of your School can broaden your education, essentially.

What have you learned from balancing multiple projects along with your doctoral studies?

I don't want to say that my experience is the experience that everyone must follow. It’s helpful to make connections early in the program and get your footing when it comes to the pace of the program and your schoolwork.

But I will admit that for the past year, I've really put in a lot of effort into getting better at saying no. We're not always comfortable saying no, but it is a skill that I'm trying to cultivate.

Looking Forward

You received a 2022 Healthy Longevity Catalyst Award from U.S. National Academy of Medicine for your project: “The Social-Medical Network: Using a Network Approach to Explore the Integration of Informal and Formal Care Networks of Older Adults.” Would you elaborate on the project?

The project is what my dissertation is focused on. It's looking at the care networks of older adults and using social network methods and analysis to measure those care networks.

You have your informal care network (your family, friends, and neighbors), and then you've got your formal care network (your healthcare professionals). These networks are likely not operating separately; they are integrated. There's communication happening, and people know each other.

I want to look at that larger network that these two sub-networks create, which I’m calling the social-medical network. In the application, I also added triadic qualitative interviews (interviewing the older adults, one member of their informal care network, and one member of their formal care network).  I am excited for that because I think that'll be my next step after my dissertation.

When you picture your life after graduating from the doctoral program, what do you hope to be doing?

I think I'd like to stay in academia if I can. One of the things about academia that I like is I feel there is a respect for innovation and a respect for people. I love that a master’s student can have a fantastic idea and solve a major problem. I think everyone has great ideas and that all of us have wonderful things to contribute. I think, hopefully, that’s where the direction of our field is going.

What advice do you have for prospective students interested in joining the HBS community?

Having something that was not Hopkins-related in my life was incredibly helpful. For me, it was singing at church. I would highly recommend finding something that is outside of our work or school environment that can give you structure during a degree program. Having that weekly responsibility forced me to get off my computer and do other things, and it was very personally rewarding as well. It centered me while in a program that is very challenging and takes a lot of time and effort.

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