Public health protects and improves the health and well-being of individuals, communities, and populations. Each and every one of us depends on public health efforts to sustain a healthy lifestyle.
While completing my undergraduate degree in environmental science and geology, I had an opportunity to take coursework in environmental chemistry. Slowly over the course of that semester, as I was introduced to more material relating to environmental health, my interests in how environmental systems function and interact began to shift more toward how they can be affected by human behavior, and consequently affect human health. What inspired me to pursue a graduate degree in environmental health sciences, was a unique opportunity to visit General Electric’s Hudson River remediation site for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). During this visit, I spoke with scientists and engineers and saw firsthand their exhaustive efforts to protect human health and the environment.
What I found attractive about being an environmental scientist or geologist as an undergraduate, was not at all diminished in my pursuit of a public health career. Instead these interests and expertise continue to play an important role in how I approach an environmental health issue. As an environmental health scientist, I am both environmental scientist and public health practitioner.
I have had many exciting and rewarding opportunities throughout my career to engage in research and practice, each having contributed in a measurable way to public health. However, as an ASPPH Environmental Health Fellow at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, I had a unique opportunity to engage in science and policy projects at a national level, and contribute to our nation’s goal of improving and protecting human health and the environment. Specifically, I worked with EPA’s Climate Change Division on issues relating to human health impacts of climate change. This opportunity helped shape my career goals and prepare me for a career working on environmental health issues at the Federal level.
Don’t silo yourself into one particular area of study or expertise. Instead, ground yourself in the fundamentals, and explore other areas of study that you are not familiar with. Get acquainted with how the entire public health system operates and depends on a variety of disciplines and skillsets. Do this by pushing the boundaries of what you expected to get out of your academic program. Although certain classes and internships are reserved for other degree programs, take it upon yourself to pursue opportunities that fulfill your career goals and interests. It may take some convincing, but just because a course is not in your required curriculum does not mean it cannot have a meaningful impact on your research objectives and the desired skillset you wish to obtain.
We face a number of significant public health challenges, each of which deserve increased attention and response. For example, the observed and projected human health effects of climate change represent a significant public health challenge. We need to continue to take strong action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gas pollutants, while simultaneously addressing current and unavoidable future impacts of climate change through various adaptation measures. Additionally, as populations continue to grow and expand, and as do their interactions with animals and the environment, we can expect to see an increase in existing and new diseases. These emerging pandemic threats are of serious concern, and warrant immediate planning, preparation, and response by the public health community.
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