Career Clusters Stories + Advice

What Can I Do in Public Health?

With the growing Global Public Health program at Boston College, more and more students are expressing an interest in public health.  With public health being such a broad term, it is often challenging to identify what exactly a career in public health could look like.  Below, three BC alums currently working in the field share a little about what public health means in their role.

  • Jillian Baker ’13, Biology and Theology Major
    Epidemiology Project Manager at Harvard Medical School
  • Kelley Cunningham ’89, Psychology Major
    Director of Suicide Prevention Program at MA Department of Public Health
  • Jasmine M Howard ’11, Political Science Major
    Attorney at Thornton Law Firm

Note: these alumnae were identified among over 100 alums in EagleExchange who indicated expertise in public health.  If you’re interested in exploring additional possibilities, connect with BC alumni on EagleExchange.

How do you address public health in your current role?

JB: In my current role with the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University, I am the Epidemiology Project Manager and oversee the collection of data for our longitudinal cohort study. We’ve gathered survey responses from over 4,000 former NFL players, and we are in the phase of our study where we’re starting to understand how health changes over time for these guys. We hope that our findings will be applicable to other athlete populations and, eventually, the general public. We know that not everyone is training like NFL players; the average person can’t easily bench 200 pounds or run a 4.4 40, but the average person, much like many NFL players, may need an ACL repair surgery or may deal with chronic pain. My current role is certainly not the most traditional way one might think about public health, but the goal is for work we’re doing at the study to translate from solutions that help NFL players into solutions that are relevant to public health, and I think we’re doing it well!

KC: Suicide is considered a public health issue. In order to address it we much look at it from a public health lens. What this means is we analyze data to determine high risk groups, areas of the state that is seeing higher numbers/rates of suicide and decide what we can do to bring the numbers down. We work with organizations who are in the community to bring services to those at risk. We are always looking at upstream approaches to suicide prevention and bring that to communities. Public health work is highly impacted by racial equity and social determinants of health. This helps frame much of the work we do.

JMH: I work as an attorney in a practice group that focuses on toxic workplace exposure. We represent families, from migrant workers to tech manufacturers, that as a result of their workplace, have children born with severe birth defects. My job involves holding companies accountable when they fail to adhere to government regulations and cause dangerous occupational and industrial hygiene situations.

How did you enter the public health field?

JB: I entered the public health field after living abroad in the Philippines and seeing the work that international NGOs were doing to improve the lives of marginalized communities in Manila. I was particularly inspired by the health-related work that I saw, and I decided that I wanted to learn more about public health. I’d always been interested in medicine but the minutiae of something like RNA synthesis or the Krebs cycle didn’t interest me nearly as much as the lived experience of the people whose health is affected by not only their individual choices but also the community around them and by factors like governmental policy and their lived environment. I saw public health as this incredible intersection of being able to work in the field of health and medicine while also working with directly people and being immersed in their communities.

As I went through my Master’s program, I learned how profound of an impact public health can have on so many people, and I have been so proud of my choice to pursue an MPH. In terms of the scale of impact, public health is as far-reaching as the air we breathe, because it IS the air we breathe! During my time at BC, I knew that I wanted a meaningful career that improved the lives of as many people as possible, but I wasn’t sure which direction I wanted to take my career. Once I learned about public health and knew that I could bring a solid aspect of service into my work, I knew public health would be a great field for me to pursue.

KC: I entered the public health field after spending a number of years working for a non-profit organization doing suicide prevention work. At the time I was working directly with communities and school systems but decided at some point I would like to work at a place where I could help change the way we are implementing suicide prevention. Possibly have the opportunity to make policy changes. Working within public health allows me to do that. Based on the data we are able to analyze and the research available to us we are now working to change how we approach this work. It’s pretty cool to look at the work from this perspective. I’ve been able to take personal experiences from family members who have been through a suicidal crisis and make a positive change in the work we do.

JMH: I was first exposed to public health through a class at BC called Policy and Politics of US Healthcare. The class was taught by a CSON professor and really took a practical patient centered focus to heath policy. Focusing on the practical application of the policies and what it looked like on an individual level was something I hadn’t really experienced in my political science classes. From that point on, I knew I wanted to work in public health and get a Master of Public Health degree. I ultimately decided to go to law school and do a dual degree JD/MPH program at a school with a strong health law focus. 

Where do you see growth in the public health field in the next few years?

JB: The intersection of health and technology will continue to be a hot spot for public health practitioners. Even communities without a steady supply of clean water might have perfect cell phone reception; how do we as public health practitioners best support health in an environment like that? Mobile health, or mHealth, utilizes mobile technology to understand and improve public health. Companies have become more interested in leveraging that technology in recent years, so there will definitely continue to be growth there!

Are there opportunities in public health, or at your organization, for recent bachelor’s graduates?

KC: I would recommend recent grads to look at a lower level position within public health. Masscareers is a good place to look for jobs within the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. You can also get involved within your local public health. Local public health is a great way to bring the work of public health directly to the communities. You can make a big difference going this route. For me, I was already working in a specific field and looked for a job in public health by that field. I’d recommend checking out the MA DPH website to see the many different fields available.

How has your BC education helped you in your work in public health?

JMH: Public health is truly an interdisciplinary area of study. Attending BC, where through the core curriculum, you spend time taking classes in natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities, is extremely important to what I do now. It isn’t uncommon for me to spend part of the day reviewing epidemiology literature, then reviewing industrial hygiene data, to then reviewing case law. I’m always jumping between different skill sets and subject matter. I believe having an education where I spent time studying a broad range of subjects was immensely beneficial.

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