Congratulations to the entire @EmoryEPI community for making it to the end of classes for Fall 2020! In August, we all knew that we were staring down a semester that would be unlike any other. As we stand on the other side of the instructional part of this semester, we can be proud of the ways in which we have leaned on each other, though both the ups and downs, to help us make it through.
At the start of the semester, Tim Lash asked us all to “recognize and practice flexibility, empathy, and patience.” We saw these principles play out throughout the semester as members of our community recognized that everyone was experiencing the pandemic differently, and that there were times where we needed to adjust our expectations to suit the moment. We also stretched ourselves in both creativity and resiliency – finding new ways to address the challenges that we faced, and recognizing that we are capable of so much more than we often give ourselves credit.
I have always been immensely grateful for our department’s community, and that gratitude has taken on a whole new life this semester. It is such a gift to be able to wake up each and every day and know that my time at work is well spent. As we settle into this week of Thanksgiving, I know that this time is likely to look quite different than in years past. To reiterate Tim’s recent message to the department, although “2020 has been difficult… many have had a much harder year than most of us. Look for the good in what has past, hope for the future, and recommit to perseverance for the present.”
Of course, I am keenly aware that we are not yet on the other side of this semester: faculty may still need to prepare finals, and of course, students still need to take them. Always remember that we are all on the same team – working together to prepare you to become influential public health professionals, ready to tackle the challenges that we face.
My hope for each and every one of you is that you are able to recharge this week, even if that means flexing your creativity to ensure a safe celebration for yourself, your loved ones, and the greater community. For some, recharging will mean completely unplugging – for others, it means getting caught up while colleagues are on a break – whatever you need, please take it, and remember to practice empathy for those whose coping mechanisms differ from your own.
In closing, I’ll share this quote from Voltaire, which perfectly encapsulates the #WeAreEmoryEPI spirit:
“Appreciation is a wonderful thing. It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.”
We appreciate, and are so grateful for, every member of our @EmoryEPI community – stay safe, be well and have a wonderful Thanksgiving!
Featured image from Chris Lawton on Unsplash: https://unsplash.com/@chrislawton
From Dr. Shakira Suglia, Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) for the PhD program in epidemiology:
As the semester starts to wind down, many of us are figuring out what’s next and while a simple answer may be ‘Spring semester is next’ some of you may be considering what’s next beyond the Spring semester. If you have been considering continuing into the PhD as your next career step after the MPH there are a few things worth considering as you embark on this journey.
Should I apply?
When considering applying, think of what you want to do after the PhD, that should drive the reason for applying. Think of your career goals, do you enjoy leading research teams? Developing research projects? Teaching and mentoring? A PhD changes the types of jobs you are competitive for, you move into a lead role conceptualizing and leading research rather than carrying out the research. Think of organizations and positions you may enjoy working in after your PhD, do the people holding those positions have PhDs?
What is getting a PhD like?
Depending on the program and academic institution, the time from start to finish of a PhD can be between 4 and 6 years. Being a PhD student is a full time ‘job’ – in addition to coursework, there are often teaching and research expectations. Compared to a MPH program there is a lot of unstructured time in the PhD program as you work on your dissertation. Some institutions, but not all, provide stipends and may cover tuition and health insurance. It’s important to have a good understanding of what obtaining a PhD is like, so it is a good idea to talk to current doctoral students, postdoctoral fellows or recent grads to learn what their day to day is like.
How do I know where to apply?
Again, do some homework. Research programs websites, read up on the work being done in each institution – are there faculty that do work in the areas that you want to work on? While a perfect match is not necessary, you want to ensure there will be faculty that can mentor you in the work that you want to engage in. If you are interested in something that no one on faculty focuses on, that is not a good match. If you can, try to distinguish between primary faculty and adjuncts who are actively mentoring students. Understand what are the training priorities of each program and how do they align with your priorities. Again throughout the application process you should reach out to faculty, students and alumni of the programs you are considering.
A bit more on the Epi PhD program
The PhD in epidemiology in our institution is offered through Emory’s Laney Graduate School. This program trains students to become independent investigators and to obtain skills to be successful in PhD-level positions in academia, government, and the private sector. Typical time to degree is 5 years, and students typically spend the first 2 years doing coursework and 3 years for dissertation work. Tuition, health insurance and a stipend are provided for students.
You can find more information on our website and you can reach out to sphepidept [at] emory [dot] edu directly with your questions. The application deadline for Fall 2021 matriculation is December 1st, 2020.
Featured image from: https://www.waldenu.edu/programs/health/resource/whats-the-difference-between-a-drph-and-a-phd-in-public-health
2020 has brought many challenges for students, staff, and faculty. These challenges resonate with the experiences that people throughout our society have faced. We are working and studying without the usual social supports and infrastructure to assist us, and all the while anxious about our own welfare and the welfare of others. Many are simultaneously juggling dependent care, which compresses a difficult schedule into even fewer hours.
Most of this is true for most people. Epidemiologists and other public health and health professionals have had an added challenge, which is to participate directly in the pandemic response. Towards the end of the summer of 2020, the editors of Epidemiology (I am Editor-in-Chief) decided to solicit short commentaries from a diverse group of epidemiologists, asking them to describe “What it has meant for them to be an epidemiologist in 2020.”
We were not asking for anyone to speak for the profession; rather the goal was to get an overview at the cross-section of a number of personal views. We nominated a long list of potential writers, and then selected a short list with the aim of obtaining a diverse set of views representing a range of backgrounds, work settings (academic, government, industry), and geographic regions. To further diversify the set of writers, we asked each invited writer to nominate a second writer, with the emphasis on suggesting someone whose voice might not usually be heard. Using this process, we obtained 20 short commentaries, which are accompanied by an overview editorial by Sonja A. Swanson, who led the effort for the journal. The entire compilation is available here.
I hope you will find time to read through them – many of us will find a writer whose experiences resonate with our own, and we hope that provides some comfort, inspiration, and maybe even a sense of solidarity as we approach the final stretch of this unprecedented year.
Featured image from: https://phys.org/news/2020-03-mathematical-epidemiology-pandemic.html
With election day now just hours away, the Confounder invited Nellie Garlow and Lisa Chung, 2nd year Epi MPH students and founders of the Rollins Election Day Initiative (REDI), to talk about their motivations for creating the organization and how they view epidemiology and civic engagement as two sides of the same coin.
Growing up with Civic Engagement
Nellie: When Dean Curran asked a group of students in January of this year, “what can we do right now to solve some of our greatest public health problems?” the first thing that came into my mind was cancelling classes on Election Day. To some, this may have seemed unrelated, but, for me, having grown up right outside of Washington, DC, politics were integral to my world view. From a young age, I attended protests on the national mall, shook the hands of congressmen and congresswomen, and listened in while politics were debated at the dinner table. My parents, who were both federal workers in different public health sectors, not only taught me about the connection between politics and human health, but also showed me how critical it was to engage civically no matter which party was in office.
Lisa: The earliest memory that I have of elections is walking to the polling site with my family of three generations. After voting, we would turn on the news as soon as we were back home and follow the election results as every single ballot was counted until well past midnight. To me, voting was always a family affair. It was only possible with my parents’ busy schedules because the Presidential Election Day is recognized as a national holiday in South Korea. From casting my first ever ballot in Korean Presidential Election to returning my mail-in ballots in Washington state, voting has always been as easy (if not easier!) as running an errand. It is unfathomable to me, to this date, that anyone would ever have to question whether to vote or work (or attend classes) or wait for hours in line. So, once Nellie shared her ideas for the Rollins Election Day Initiative, I knew that this would reduce an enormous potential burden to civic engagement within the Rollins community.
When the opportunity arose to increase election and civic engagement at Rollins, we knew the fastest way our school could make a difference was to remove synchronous class content from Election Day so that public health students could vote and help others in the community to cast their ballots safely. Together, we would spend the next eight months standing up Rollin’s first non-partisan voting rights organization, the Rollins Election Day Initiative (REDI), in hopes of making a difference in public health.
Civic Engagement and Epidemiology
As epidemiologists, we have an ethical obligation to act in the best interest of the public’s health and one key way we can do this is by ensuring all people have a say in which politicians make decisions that impact their health directly. When citizens face barriers to voting, they lose that representation on the local, state, and national levels. As with health, a wealth of evidence suggests that disparities in access to voting happen along socioeconomic and racial lines in the US. This is no coincidence, since disparities in both health and voting access are driven by the same structural mechanisms. As those responsible for both elucidating the causal structure of such inequalities and working to undo them, it is thus our responsibility as epidemiologist to also advocate for the elimination of the upstream causes of unequal access to voting.
Another critical reason we as epidemiologists must pay attention to elections and politics is because we hold elected officials to using the best evidence available when making public health decisions. It is not enough to simply produce the evidence of a causal mechanism and then rely on others to ensure its appropriate application – when we see politicians disregarding facts for political gains that negatively impact the public’s health and our own credibility as scientists, it is our obligation to speak up. Epidemiologists must hold our elected leaders accountable.
One thing we cannot compromise on when getting involved in politics is civility. We must remember that there are a wide range of political opinions, both across the US and at Rollins, and it is critical that we listen to one another and convey our opinions respectfully. As is emphasized from the core of our department, we should approach these conversations with flexibility and empathy, but most importantly with respect to one another. Rather than silencing the views that oppose yours, think about the growth that can be experienced when listening and learning to from others, especially in the moments when it feels most challenging. We can move forward as a nation, as a department, as scientists and individuals, only if we allow ourselves to learn from each other in a civil, respectful manner. Only together, we can grow, flourish, and “redeem the soul of our nation.”
Finally, engaging in politics and elections makes us establish good habits. As Emory professor Carol Anderson writes in her book, One Person No Vote, it is critical we get involved in elections and civic engagement early on and to not take our democracy for granted. This year’s presidential election may seem like a contentious one, but we’re betting it won’t be the last nail-bitter we see in our lifetimes. Furthermore, there will be countless local elections that will have an even greater impact on the public’s health and as public health professionals, we can’t forget those.
As we head into the election, we have a simple message for all of you: get involved on Election Day, stay involved in your local elections, and support your community in the process. To quote, late Congressman John Lewis, “when historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war.”
If you would like to get involved in REDI’s work or learn more about their efforts, check out their website where you can find all of the resources they have compiled, like a map of ballot drop boxes, nonpartisan fact sheets about what is on the ballot in local elections, and more! Also, be sure to follow REDI on Twitter and Instagram and like their Facebook page. A special thanks to Nellie and Lisa for sharing their stories and to the entire REDI team for the work they continue to do to improve civic engagement at Emory and throughout Georgia!
2020 has thrown us one curveball after another. As I reflect on the skills that I have had to rely on most heavily during these last 10 months, the skill that has served me best is problem-solving. From figuring out how to transition my in-person class to be fully online within a week, to supporting virtual learning for 4th and 1st graders while keeping a toddler happy and out of the way, to how to safely celebrate the life of my dear grandmother — there has been no shortage of opportunities to flex this critically important skill.
Problem-solving isn’t an innate ability – it’s a skill that anyone can cultivate to apply to any situation, both in your personal and professional lives, and lies at the intersection of critical thinking, compartmentalization, creativity, and composure. Though many problems do require extensive technical knowledge (some of which you already have as an epidemiologist), most of the work of problem solving takes place outside of that context – engaging skillsets and mindsets that can be applied to almost any problem.
At our core, I think all epidemiologists are good problem solvers, whether we see ourselves that way or not. Epidemiologists build a toolkit of skills that can be applied to a wide range of problems. While you might start out as a cancer epidemiologist, maybe you pivot in a couple of years to begin work on the impact of environmental exposures on fertility. Take solace in the fact that you are growing your skillset in an area that is both incredibly versatile and one that the world needs now more than ever before.
As you work to hone your problem-solving skills, it is important to be mindful that the approach that works to solve one problem might not work for another. Do you remember that saying “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail?”Creativity is an essential component in problem solving, and we ought to resist the urge to apply the same solution to every problem that we face.
Not only does our ability to problem-solve help us get through some sticky situations, but we can also take these opportunities to help launch us forward towards achieving our goals. When you’ve overcome a particularly challenging situation, consider jotting down some notes for yourself about what the problem was and how you solved it. The next time you find yourself in an interview, you can draw from these experiences to provide concrete examples about situations where you faced a challenge and how you addressed it.
For me, problem-solving always begins by trying to break the problem down into as many parts as I can. This provides some clarity to help understand exactly what I’m facing, and then I can identify which elements need to be prioritized and which might have some flexibility.
For more ideas and strategies, check out the article linked above – and as a bonus, you can learn more about how to talk about your problem-solving skills on your resume and in interviews!
Featured image from: https://www.freepik.com/premium-vector/practice-collaboration-problem-solving-teams-by-completing-puzzle-games_6169840.htm
In your coursework at Rollins, you will often be asked to complete group work either in the form of larger projects or smaller discussion groups. After Rollins, being able to enhance the work of a team will be an invaluable skillset in the professional setting. Public health is a field that needs to communicate effectively with other science fields, policy makers and the public to gain support for recommendations. Collaborative relationships are necessary for success and in public health, success means saving lives and increasing quality of life.
When I think of teamwork, I think of the African Proverb:
“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
While group assignments are not always met with excitement, they are a great way to practice teamwork and flex skills that help everyone succeed. Teamwork is everyone’s responsibility and will be an important skill in your career. Some important traits that I seek out in good team members include accountability, commitment, flexibility and optimism.
Accountability and commitment
Every individual on a team has an enormous effect on a team’s dynamic and its performance. While a leader might seem like the person who can solely guide a team to success, I believe each member plays a significant role in deciding how the team will function. It does not take many team members to lead a talented group towards dysfunction. Individuals are ultimately responsible for deciding whether the team will be stymied by this dysfunction or will hold each other and themselves accountable to being functional and high performing.
This commitment to high standards can be coached, but a team is so much more effective if this comes from each individual in a team. You want team members who are committed to the goal and to each other. This commitment includes supporting each other. When others need help, every team member should be aware of those needs and willing to provide their support. This commitment to each other is an essential ingredient in successful teams.
Flexibility and optimism
Team members also need to be flexible. When talented individuals with different approaches, ideas, and skills are brought together on a team, some conflict will be inevitable. The most effective teams have members who actively seek out and include others in making key decisions and solving problems creatively. They understand that having a diversity of opinions leads to optimal solutions and that you need to listen to these ideas and experiences of others because they will stretch you, challenge you, and call on you to empathize. In that context, disagreement is a blessing, not a curse. If you truly value the opinions and input of others, your team will benefit as a whole, and each member will grow.
I also believe successful teams approach the team’s goals and the future optimistically. Optimism tends to lead to more energy about a project and is an approach that feeds connection and commitment. It is much easier to be committed to a team that is forward thinking, flexible in opinion, and filled with the expectation of good work together.
Teamwork in action
It is certainly true that teamwork is not always easier than working alone, but the benefits of a connected and hardworking team can be immense. The next time you are part of a team, consider how you engage to support teammates and the goals of the team. Practice being the teammate you want to have. Connect, support, listen, encourage and motivate each other. These skills will serve you well both in school and in your career.
Featured image from: https://www.freepik.com/premium-vector/coworkers-workplace-team-working-together-coworking-space-office-team-workers-business-colleagues_6541579.htm
“Do not judge me by my success, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”
― Nelson Mandela
After a recent meeting, a debriefing conversation sidelined to discussing the general sense of angst we were all (students, staff, faculty, children..) experiencing, and the phrase “lessons in resilience” was spoken*.. which got me wondering – what is resilience? why is it so important? can it be learned at any time?
There is no denying that we are all feeling burned out, with no end in sight. How many times have you caught yourself questioning the actual date/day/time? It can be numbing how everything has blurred together, while being barraged with one crisis after another.
Along with COVID, we are experiencing a griefpandemic, “We’re dealing with disparities in health and socioeconomics, and we have blurred boundaries between our work and personal life. A new daily stressor happens before we learned to deal with the last one.” (Debra Kawhara)
“Note to self: every time you were convinced you couldn’t go on, you did.”
How can we grow and become stronger, and resilient through all of this?
First, what are some myths regarding resilience? It is NOT in fact a badge of honor to be struggling. It is okay to feel overwhelmed, despondent, numb – in these situations, please ask for help. Being able to reach out for support is critical. Rely on your social networks, and/or resources for assistance. “Resilience is when you have the ability to break and get back together.” Caveat here – you will not be bouncing back, but rather bouncing forward. Each time you work through any adversities you build new skills and incorporate new ways of coping and are better able to deal with future challenges.
Resilience CAN be learned. My favorite quote on this comes from Josh Altman, “There is already a seed of resilience inside everyone,” he says. “Learning to lean into rather than avoiding difficult situations makes us stronger.”
Practice the skills associated with resilience to cultivate crucial faculties: self-awareness, nimble thinking, high-quality relationships, stress awareness. “Resilience isn’t about toughening up people – it’s about empowering them.”
It’s okay to feel positive during a crisis: I have had numerous conversations with students, colleagues, and friends/family about this. Don’t feel guilty for laughing, enjoying yourself, finding joy and humor in the midst of the crisis we all find ourselves. It is what will get you through this time, and future challenges in your life.
Relationships matter: Perhaps one of the greatest lessons we have all learned during social distancing and quarantining is how much we value and need social interactions. Who are you counting on, who counts on you? Cultivate, build and strengthen your relationships. They give life meaning, and make you stronger.
It’s okay to be vulnerable: Brené Brown’s work in this area has been groundbreaking, “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.” We grow from struggle and adversity.
Finally, if you can find 16 minutes, watch this TED talk, Sh*t happens: 8 Lessons in resilience. Spoiler alert: here are the major takeaways: no person is an island (reach out for social support), mentalizing (thinking about thinking, taking time to process your emotions), practice, practice, practice on where to focus your attention, be like the weeble – “weebles wobble but they won’t fall down,” name the thing that we are most challenged by to avoid the risk of the “nameless dread” coined by psychoanalyst Bion, and the best – good enough is good enough.
“Wobbling” is essential for those times when we can’t function at our best, and nor should we expect ourselves to. We cannot be 100% all the time, there are challenges that are often out of our control, this is when we must be compassionate with ourselves.
“I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.”
The Fall 2020 semester has already brought new challenges and new successes. Students, staff, and faculty have implemented and improved new modes of learning and communication, all without the respite of a fall break or holiday, and all without the usual means of interpersonal social support. There is room to do better, and we are all working towards that, but it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate how well we have done overall.
Planning for the home stretch
The last part of the Fall 2020 semester overlaps with the US election season, and we ought to plan accordingly. Our department community is engaged in the voting season, and we are especially grateful to student leadership to promote civic engagement. The voting season ends November 3, but that may not be the end of the election season. November may bring longer than normal waits for election results, and then these results may be contested in courts and legislatures. This waiting will likely stoke anxieties and distract us from the classroom, at exactly the time that we are all working to finish a difficult semester. Each of us needs to have a plan.
What’s your strategy?
Your plan may profit from the strategy called compartmentalization. Compartmentalization is a defense mechanism used to prevent mental discomfort and anxiety caused by having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, and demands. Compartmentalization is not about being in denial; it’s about putting things where they belong and not letting them get in the way of the rest of your life. As described in today’s reading,
“Compartmentalizing is one of the most important strategies for setting healthy boundaries. It allows us to establish mental barriers between one priority and another so that we can direct all of our energy into what’s right in front of us.”
In this week’s article, the author outlines five steps to become better at compartmentalizing. TL;DR, the main points are to:
recognize the conflicting emotional and structural demands on your mental energy, and
give all of them their own individual space in your day.
Compartmentalization in practice
There is a 24/7 news cycle these days, but election news is unlikely to change much minute to minute. Schedule the times that you will check in on the news, and then work on the semester at other times. You may choose to exercise your right to peaceful protest (while taking care to protect yourself by following pandemic protocols). Schedule the preparation and protest time as a compartment, and keep that time separate from the time you spend following the news and the time you spend on finishing the semester.
The Road Ahead
We are all hoping for a just and swift election result. If there is uncertainty, the period of uncertainty will overlap with the end of our semester. Spend some time in October planning for how you will react and how you will assure that all of the demands on your mental energy and time will be met, and your mental and physical wellbeing will be preserved.
The Fall 2020 semester is unlikely to be the last time that the sum of your personal, social, and professional lives demand more attention than you can deliver. Honing the skills needed to meet these challenges will serve you well later.
Featured Image from: https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/gradhacker/compartmentalized-life
Let’s talk about personal branding. To be honest, the phrase makes me cringe a bit – it sounds awfully pretentious and self-absorbed. And while you won’t ever hear me talking about “my personal brand,” I have come to find value in this idea of being intentional about how you present yourself – particularly online.
Who am I?
Humans are complex – we have lots of different identities, all of which come together to make each of us unique. It is important to me that those who I encounter, whether in-person or online, have some insight into what makes me tick. I am keenly aware of my unique position as an early-career academic in a leadership role, who also happens to be a mom of three. My successes have not always come easily; and although I often feel like I’m juggling with fire, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Knowing that some of my students may look to me as they think about their own lives ahead, I know I would do a great disservice to them if I wasn’t transparent about both the highs and the lows of this journey. It feels most natural to shed some light onto these experiences during one-on-one conversations or even in the classroom, but there’s also room for us to share our humanity in online spaces as well.
Blending Personal and Professional
If you don’t know about #EpiTwitter yet, I highly recommend exploring this great piece from our PROspective archives, followed by time spent touring many of its incredible rabbit holes. My own Twitter account was created only after learning about #EpiTwitter, and even with the promise of great epidemiology content, I was reluctant to join. I began with just two followers (both of whom were my mom!) and I spent the first several months as a lurker. Over time, I became more comfortable sharing my own thoughts and made the decision to include content that was both professional and personal in nature. My posts are most often related to epidemiology, @EmoryEPI highlights, civic engagement, teaching, parenting, and my creative outlet. Perhaps my favorite are the crossover posts – where parenting meets epidemiology. Certainly, these topics don’t capture everything about me, but they provide a window into who I am as a person – not just as a professional.
Risk vs. Reward
Social media has taken over both personal and professional spheres – and although there are many downsides to its pervasiveness, interacting with professionals on places like Twitter and LinkedIn can afford us a range of opportunities that we’d miss in non-virtual spaces. Among these are the opportunities to engage with professional organizations, connect with potential collaborators at other institutions, keep up with current debates in the field, and even unique ways to advocate for ourselves.
There is no recipe for a fail-safe way to create your personal brand, however this article does include a few concrete steps you can take as you think about how you present yourself online. While there is certainly some risk in blurring the lines between your personal and professional selves, there can also be great reward.
Above all: just be yourself – you are enough and have a lot to offer.
Featured image from: https://www.socialmediatoday.com/topic/algorithm-updates/
Until recently, it was unlikely someone you met, or your family at Thanksgiving dinner, would know what epidemiology was and what we do. But even now, it’s still unlikely people will know the breadth of work done by epidemiologists – everything from cardiovascular damage due to pervasive stress, to cancer research, sleep, maternal health, and a wide variety of infectious diseases.
Throughout my career, I have often taken the shortcut of saying, “I am an HIV researcher” although that commonly has to be followed by explanations of not doing bench science. Lately, as I spend much of my time doing COVID-19 work, I am described, and describing myself, more as an infectious disease epidemiologist which harkens back to my first research jobs in graduate school. So, even today, you could say my “specialty” in epidemiology continues to evolve – representing a combination of my personal experiences, my interests, and the context of the world at present. For students and early career epidemiologists, there are a seemingly infinite number of directions to go with your skillset, and deciding which of these avenues fits you best is often more of a journey than a choice.
So, how do we all find our area of interest?
Some students come to Rollins with very targeted goals; I was not one of them. I did not come to graduate school determined to do HIV work, although I was drawn to infectious diseases. Some students come to try out different areas of research and I fall into this category. I took electives in other disease specialties until I could honestly say ID was my thing, and I learned with every one of these courses both new information and methods, and what I did or did not see myself doing my entire career. While you consider which electives to take, make sure to review the Department’s Areas of EPI document on Canvas, which provides some helpful background on many of the common subspecialties within epidemiology and which courses fall into those categories.
When I think about how I decided to specialize in HIV epidemiology, there are really two reasons and two influential people involved in this story. The reasons are timing and opportunity and the people are my uncle and my mentor.
Timing and my uncle – the personal connection:
Going into public health in the 1990s, it felt cliché to be interested in HIV/AIDS and this alone made me not want to pursue this topic. Yet, it was a deeply personal area and one that has informed much of my thoughts about public health since. Students who have taken HIV Epidemiology with me have heard me speak about my Uncle Bill.
I was in high school when he called my mom, his sister, to let her know that his longtime roommate had been diagnosed with AIDS. It was a call that not only told our family that he was sick but also one that told us his roommate was his partner, a relationship that had not been clearly understood in our family for decades. As a kid, I recall watching my family learn to love all of who my uncle was. There was never any doubt that my family loved him, but I still look at that time as a sad realization that he had not been able to share all of who he was with us for so very long. We were fortunate to have more than four years left with him before he, too, died of HIV.
We all have experiences that shape us and even though I was not consciously pursuing the field of HIV epidemiology because of Uncle Bill, the impact his life has had on my career is deep.
Opportunity and my mentor:
When I arrived at Emory for my masters, I began work at the Atlanta VA Medical Center on several infectious disease studies in the Emerging Infectious Disease Program with CDC. I learned a tremendous amount about writing questionnaires, problems with skip patterns, and the willingness of hospitalized patients to participate in studies. I also learned that it can take over 680 cold calls to find a control for a case of Group B Strep and that food borne illnesses are interesting but were not my passion.
Every study I worked on taught me something and brought me in contact with interesting, dedicated, and very smart researchers. One of these investigators, Dr. David Rimland, became my thesis advisor. I still recall the first day I met David although I had no way of knowing the opportunities he would provide for me and the truly remarkable ways he would influence my career. When given the chance to do my thesis work using the HIV cohort he had followed since 1982 at the Atlanta VA, I jumped at the opportunity.
It is important to note that I did take a 13-month detour to work at the American Cancer Society but missed work in the HIV world the entire time I was gone. I still remember making the phone call to David asking if he had a position to work with him again, but this time specifically in HIV research. Thankfully, he said yes and I returned home. To me, home had become the quirky VA hospital, people I admired, a rich set of data, HIV research, and working with my mentor. In the 17 years I worked in the VA HIV clinic, we fought every day to improve lives of those we served in our clinic and all people living with HIV. There is no doubt that the way I approach research and my love for the work I do has been heavily influenced by working with David. I learned, I made mistakes, and I grew all under his supportive mentorship.
I admire our students who come to graduate school with a true vision for their work. I encourage each of you to explore other fields just for a class or two, or even for a guest lecture. There is so much to learn and so many ways to connect specialty fields. And for those who are searching for your passion, it is out there. Speak to faculty about how we found our field of work. Most have a story to share about their journey and how their lens on the world has influenced their work. Most of these stories are about connection; connection to diseases, specialty areas, or important mentors who both guide us and offer their connections to us as we pursue our careers.
Looking back, it seems obvious that losing my uncle to HIV, and watching him combat stigma that was so deeply pervasive during the first years of the epidemic, is why my career took the path that it did. But my journey also needed the influence of a great HIV researcher and mentor to find its true course. As the adage goes: hindsight is 20/20, and the arc of your own story is unlikely to be clear from the outset. However, if you commit to exploring new avenues, seek out mentors, and connect your past experiences to your curiosity, your path in epidemiology will reveal itself.
Featured image from: https://medium.com/wizbuskout/be-directionless-to-find-a-direction-a3c39a73b182
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