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Is there a moment that leads a person to public health? In this episode, we ask students, faculty and staff why they chose their path in life.

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Jess: The beginning of the school year often feels like a fresh start. And here, at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, students, faculty and staff introduce themselves to new faces, welcome back the familiar and declare new goals or plans for what they hope to do (whether that’s ultimately graduating, inspiring future generations, or making a difference).

Naya: But how did everyone get here? Was there a moment that led them to public health? Do most people have a moment where they know what it is they want to do in life? So we asked:

Dean Rimer: There wasn’t one moment, I don’t think there is one moment for most people …

Natalie: I still don’t know what I want to do in life…

Jack: I don’t think I’ve reached that point yet, I think I’m still in the process of figuring out what I want to do …

Trinnette: I clearly haven’t reached the moment as of today …

Elizabeth: I don’t think that there was one moment …

Jessica: I don’t think I had a Eureka moment, I wasn’t blessed with that …

Greg: My career field chose me instead of me choosing it …

Naya: Wait, there’s gotta be a moment for some people? Right?

Bridget: it was back in high school I took an AP stats class when I was a sophomore in high school, so that was a very long time ago but I remember I just loved it and then I thought I could potentially have a career in this because I was just very interested and here I am …

Jess: That’s Bridget, a doctoral student in the Biostatistics Department. Another student in the Health Behavior Department, Deshira, shared her experience about going to school at Duke as an undergrad, majoring in biochem and just couldn’t seem to get into it, and so she went to an activities fair and saw they a had a global health certificate (which she loved). Eventually, she changed majors to environmental sciences and with that was able to continue her studies focusing on global health. Soon after, she went on winter break to visit her family in Panama.

Deshira: I was listening to the news and observing the things happening there and the fact that Panama had a lot of money coming in for conservation and environment, but it had almost nothing with chronic disease and that’s a problem in Latina America right now. I realized that diet, obesity, diabetes which are really grand problems in Latin America are not being looked at and I found that there was a gapand that’s a gap I could work in, unlike the environment and things I was interested in with water quality is kinda saturated and we know the types of things we should be doing. There is just innovating ways to do that better. There is just a lack of knowledge of chronic disease in Latin America, so I thought this could be good.

Naya: Then, looking to continue her education, she applied to the Gillings School for the MSPH to PHD program where she is currently studying what can be done to address this issue. But is it that easy for everyone to decide what it is they want to do, what degree do they want to pursue?

Leah: when I found myself in dental school and understanding really that oral disease, tooth decay, gingivitis those are entirely preventable diseases, I found myself being intrigued with being able to prevent these problems from ever happening, rather than doing surgery, cutting on hard or soft tissue, and that was very exciting to me. I learned about the School of Public Health, across the street from the Dental School and decided that I would go ahead complete my dental degree (I was about half-way through) and that I would see where my life took me, but that I knew I would circle back to prevention and total body health …

Jess. So that was Leah Devlin, former state health director in North Carolina and current connector and change maker of all things public health. She’s pretty awesome. Hearing how her interests evolved as she learned more about what was possible and what she was passionate about helped us think that it may not actually be one moment, but as our director of student services said,

Greg: It wasn’t necessarily planned out from the beginning, it was more a series of mini decisions in the moment that felt right to me to help me take that next step in my academics and career.

Naya: That’s Greg Bocchino (or better known as Dr. G), his job at the School is to help students prepare for careers once they have finished their studies. He’s basically a pro at knowing how to figure out what you want to do in life and hearing that there’s always more decisions to be made can be very comforting …

Jess: Because eventually, we’ll all have to still decide what’s next. And that’s hard. For students at the beginning stages of their academic careers, here’s what they said:

Dashira: Oh, that’s a good question … dissertation!

Jack: What’s next? That’s a good question … right now it’s either do I pursue a doctoral program or look for a job?

Natalie: Within the next year, before next fall, I’m going to have to decide which doctoral programs I want to apply to because that is my next goal.

Bridget: I think … I still have a long road in front of me I still need to get through quals, coursework, and thesis and all that. But I really hope to be involved in research on clinical trials and maybe development of new statistical methods.

Jessica: Well, I’m graduating in May and I’m not sure yet, I think that I’ve taking this opportunity at school to diversify my interests and my skills, so I’m looking to possibly look for jobs in government (county or state health departments), non-profits … I kinda want to see what’s out there, and then decide, apply where I can, get a job and be happy and do great things.

Naya: So, maybe that’s what it’s all about … finding a purpose that does something good and makes you happy.

Jess: I think so, but let’s acknowledge for a minute how incredibly complex and challenging access to education alone can be.

Naya: Right, so it starts early with access to good schools and systems to support you.

Jess: Yes, not to mention the financial and cultural barriers involved. So simply knowing what you want to do is one thing …

Naya: feeling able to pursue those ideas is another …

Dean Rimer: When I grew up, women were pretty much being tracked into certain professions, like nursing, teaching, social work, so I thought I wanted to be a social worker, which is what my mother was.

Naya: That’s Barbara Rimer, Dean of the Gillings School of Global Public Health. She’s also a pretty big deal. She had a lot of really good insight into this topic.

Dean Rimer: I couldn’t afford to go to social work school, and somebody said “well, you should go see people at the school of public health,” (I was at University of Michigan) and I did and it seemed like something I would want to do. But I wasn’t at that point passionate about it, I did it, and I learned more and more what I liked about it and it seemed to be a really good fit for me. But like a lot of my friends at my time, I was really trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted. It took me a while to figure out how much I loved public health and how much I loved (eventually) doing research. I don’t think it was one moment, I think it was much more of a journey of figuring out what I was good at and where I could make a difference and what kind of place I wanted to work at.

Naya: And so we asked her what the hardest part for her, once she had access?

Dean Rimer: I think what’s hard is that for any one individual, there’s no roadmap … you know, public health is so different from something like medicine, where you know, you have a pretty good idea (you may not know your specialty), but you have a pretty good idea what the journey is. You know you’re going to go to medical school, and you’ll have the white coat ceremony and people will understand what it is to be a physician. In public health there are so many different ways you can go. I think one of the hard things is that there is not a clear path. In a way, I think it’s one of the things that’s really good about public health is that you can create your own journey … but that means there is a lot of ambiguity. I remember when I was getting my master’s degree, all these people saying, “But what really is health education?” You know? “What do you do you with health education?” And then you realize, well what’s really good is that you can figure it out. I think that was for me, one of the things that was hard, was trying to figure it out … working a whole lot, which is what’s always been a part of my life and balancing it with some other things you might want to do. But I think realizing that you’ve taken a path that for a lot of people in public health isn’t prescribed, it’s built, and there isn’t just one moment or one day that it all comes together. And also realizing that you have to take advantage of opportunities when they come and they always come at times when you’ve got a zillion things to do, and you think I can’t do one more thing. But boy, I could really have an impact if I do that, and you say yes, and then it leads to something else. I think the challenge is trying to figure out where you’re going to make an impact. The hard part is getting that path right where you’re not just going through motions every day, but you’re doing something that you wake up in the morning and you feel passionate about. To me I’ve always thought of public health as a mission, not just a job. And I never thought about my trajectory in terms of how do I get to be this thing, this title … that’s never been on my own particular radar screen, it’s how do you make a difference, you know?

Jess: So here’s our hope with this podcast, that you can join us monthly, or download a few a time at a time to hear stories about all kinds of people who are finding their path and trying to make a difference.

Naya: We’ll hear how people are addressing the challenges that affect population health, both globally and right here in North Carolina. You can learn more about this show at  There you’ll find more information on each episode including pictures and helpful links.

Jess: We also want this to be a space where we can start a conversation on these important issues together.  So stop by and leave a comment and share what you’d like to hear on future episodes.

Naya: If you like what you heard be sure to tell a friend and subscribe to us on iTunes. Thanks!


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