In truth, I’m writing this post for selfish reasons. As I gear up for my move to Philadelphia, I’m getting asked at least once a day why I want to get my Masters of Public Health. Some are asking out of genuine curiosity, others with judgmental undertones behind their questioning. I’ve found that I often give a slightly different answer to almost everybody who asks — not because I’m unsure as to why I wanted to make this move but rather because the reasons behind doing it are so multi-faceted. Now I can just tell them to go to this post to get a real perspective behind the decision.
Let’s start with the basics (because a ton of people don’t even know what it means). Public health examines the health of people at population level through scientific analysis, regulation, and constant monitoring. There are a few key disciplines or scopes through which public health is practiced and studied, the main ones being epidemiology, public health policy, biostatistics, communicable disease, public health management/leadership, social/behavioral sciences, and occupational/environmental sciences.
This very well may change as I focus my interests within the curriculum, but I envision focusing the majority of my public health studies in epidemiology and public health policy, likely with a hint of biostatistics.
My initial general interests in public health developed in wake of my medical experience abroad during my undergrad years where I traveled to Honduras and Peru a couple of times for medical mission trips in order to provide relief in the forms of free medical & dental care to those in most desperate need of it. In addition to running the medical & dental clinics and the pharmacy, we spent time working on public health projects where we would help out with the construction of a school, bathrooms, staircases in order to assist in navigating the challenging terrain, and more.
One of the most astonishing and impactful takeaways I had after my travels to Peru in particular was the lack of access to clean drinking water that citizens had just a few miles on the outskirts of Lima, the capital city of Peru. Their stagnant water was stored in old barrels that were inconsistently filled by privately contracted companies facilitated by the local government. There was no set of quality standards or regulations for the water itself or the barrels.
The barrels were often formerly used for storage of harmful chemicals or oil/gas (and almost certainly were not sufficiently sanitized before being recycled to folks for use of water storage). Water provided was not regulated and contained all sorts of microbes and unhealthy levels of other trace ions & elements, not to mention that the stagnant water was an environment conducive to harboring mosquitoes and their eggs, which can carry malaria.
In the clinic and in the field, I kept asking a number of questions to myself. Why were these people sick with diseases that we have vaccines and simple treatment plans for back at home in the US? What are the root causes of these patients’ presentations with simple, easily treatable illnesses? Why isn’t the government regulating the quality of the water for its citizens? Study and applications of public health answers these sorts of questions.
I ended up working with an engineering group back at WVU to get their design for water purification systems into the hands of the group I traveled to Peru with, which is a story for another day. From these experiences in the clinic and in the field, my initial interest in public health was clear and began developing from here.
My interest in public health continued to be stimulated throughout the rest of my undergraduate coursework in classes both directly and indirectly related to public health from medical sociology to the basic communication of science to the public. In my first semester of medical school, I eagerly anticipated lectures for our public health course, while many other classmates saw it as being uninteresting and nothing more than a time sink away from focusing on our more intensive and “relevant” coursework — medical physiology, biochemistry, and physical diagnosis. I finished the course wanting to learn more, and I knew the only way to make it worthwhile would be to pursue it further as a masters degree where I could spend dedicated time focusing on the field.
The clinical research I’ve been engaged on thus far in medical school have honed my interests in epidemiology centered research (the study of patterns, causes, and effects of health/disease on populations), and training to earn an MPH will lay the framework for me to not only ask valid research questions but also devise a way to answer the questions, organize & analyze large volumes of data, and ultimately answer the questions.
I also have the opportunity to leave my home state of West Virginia where I’ve spent all my life and the institution I’ve spent the past 6.5 years at — West Virginia University for a short period of time to get the MPH, after which I will return to finish my last 2 years of medical school. I would be a liar if I said the opportunity to get out of West Virginia and temporarily relocate to a big city wasn’t a small part of the calculus. I would also be a liar if I tried to say the fact that I will be earning the degree from a prestigious and world renowned university (Penn) wasn’t also a small incentivizing factor (side note — I have no idea how/why I got accepted into their program).
An additional interest of mine in the field of public health aside from the epidemiology based research and fieldwork side of things is public health policy. In the past couple of years, the political and social climates have sparked a firestorm of personal interest in politics. I hope the public health policy education and experiences at Penn will permit me to be a more knowledgable advocate for patients and the public at large in the political arena.
Lastly, I have all the confidence in the world that the educational, fieldwork, and research experiences at Penn going to pay dividends for my professional career that I hope for in academic surgery as a clinician, researcher, leader, and advocate in my future.
In the spirit of full disclosure though, I’ve saved the most important reason for my move for last. In all honesty, the primary driving force behind going to Penn for the MPH is the prospect of running into former Vice President (and maybe future Presidential candidate…?) Joe Biden on campus. He is now leading the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement and so I plan to carry his book on me 24/7 until I run into him and get him to sign it. A selfie with Uncle Joe itself would be more than worth the tens of thousands of dollars it’s going to cost to pursue this worthwhile endeavor.
In all seriousness, I couldn’t be more excited about this move for all the aforementioned reasons both personally and professionally and look forward to reflecting on my experiences up there as I endure them on this page!
To conclude, I wanted to quickly thank all of my mentors at WVU, in case they happen to stumble upon this post, for their genuine advice and support of me in considering this endeavor. Thanks Dr. Mason, Dr. Ueno, Dr. Thomay, Dana, Brewster, Dr. Knight, and Dr. Grabo. From undergrad to medical school, I have the best mentors a student could hope for.