Whitney Cowell

PhD Candidate in Environmental Health Sciences

I became interested in public health while I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. Following my junior year, I participated in a unique study abroad program based in the Dominican Republic focused on studying nutrition and environmental health problems using community-based participatory research methods. Working on that study was a turning point for me. It introduced me to research on the health effects of environmental exposures, and I’ve been working on these kinds of studies ever since.

During my MPH training at Boston University I collaborated on several research projects. Based on these experiences, I considered applying to PhD programs, but ultimately decided it was important to experience life as a full-time research scientist first. After graduating, I accepted a two-year position in the Channing Laboratory at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital as a research coordinator for a longitudinal epidemiology study examining the effects of prenatal exposure to PCBs, on the development of children born near a Superfund site. When I started in 2010 the children were adolescents and had been followed since their mothers  were pregnant in the early 1990s. I gained valuable knowledge and practical skills from this experience, including an appreciation for the complexity behind conducting longitudinal research. Working as a project coordinator confirmed my interest in a research career, so I came to Mailman for a PhD in molecular epidemiology.

I applied to programs across the United States, and interviewed with a number of institutions, but at the end of the day, the stability of the funding structure for PhD students in Environmental Health Sciences, coupled with the School’s Center for Children’s Environmental Health made the decision an easy one.

As a PhD student, I had the opportunity to rotate through several research labs before committing to an advisor or dissertation project and the flexibility of our program allowed me to tailor my coursework to my research interests, including classes at both the Medical Center and the Columbia Morningside Campus. My schedule is very different from my colleagues in Environmental Health Sciences, but we’re all working to prevent exposure to environmental pollution and understand the health effects of these exposures

I have always felt strongly about preventing, rather than treating, health problems. Entering my fourth year as a PhD student at Mailman, I now have the skills and expertise to begin contributing to this work and look forward to a long career as an environmental health researcher.