May 08 2018

The Class of 2018: In Your Words

Six members of the Class of 2018 share their thoughts on the skills they’ve gained and experiences had at the Mailman School and offer a glimpse into their plans for the future. 

Grant Conway: I Love My Government Job

Ever since I was in middle school, I wanted to work for the government. I’ve always been excited by the opportunity to make a real difference and influence policy. I applied for hundreds of jobs and got one interview as a clerk with the Federal Protective Service when I was 16; I didn’t get the job. It was not until I enrolled at the Mailman School that I was hired to work for the federal government. While I’ve been completing my MS in Biostatistics, I have been working as an analyst in the New York City office of the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. I’m going to stay on in that job after graduating.

I work on a team that identifies ways to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the Medicare Shared Saving Program. The program is made up of Medicare providers who form Accountable Care Organizations. These providers coordinate to reduce costs and improve quality for their assigned beneficiaries. Our study found that the program has shown potential for improving quality and reducing spending. I also did an independent project that found an association between hospitals that coordinate care and elevated rates of risk-standardized mortality for heart failure beneficiaries. 

As an undergraduate student, one of my professors encouraged me to enroll in biostatistics classes. I was hesitant at first, but as soon as I understood the broad public health applications, I was won over. That summer, I was accepted to a summer program in biostatistics at the Mailman School, where I was introduced to the impressive Biostatistics Department. The professors here are supportive. They even take time to help me answer questions that have come up outside of the classroom. My classmates have been a huge help too. Ten or twelve of us would get together for a four-hour marathon of probability problem sets. Learning collaboratively is the best way.

Jamal Lewis: On the Home Front

It took a big health scare to get me into environmental health sciences. When I was a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, I reluctantly decided to major in communications, partly to accommodate my rigorous training schedule as a starting point guard for a Division I basketball team. But ever since high school, my real interest was environmental sciences. That spring, I found myself in a hospital bed with a rare infection and on the verge of dying. During the three weeks I was there, I decided to switch my major to environmental health sciences, not least of all because I had a new appreciation for the importance of health. This led to a summer project identifying sources of lead that were poisoning children in Lancaster County, PA, and then to the Department of Environmental Health Sciences here at the Mailman School.

Over the last two years, I’ve been interested in the connection between the environment and health with an emphasis on where people live. I co-wrote a paper with Professor Diana Hernandez on the importance of energy security in promoting health among the African American population that we will be presenting at a conference in August. I also worked with Matthew Perzanowski on a study examining the impact that green housing could have on individuals with asthma. Throughout this time, I served as the Environmental Health and Policy fellow with the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, an advocacy group based in Baltimore. I worked to create comprehensive housing intervention programs for low-income families, reducing risk of exposure not just to lead, but to mold (an asthma trigger), while also improving energy efficiency (for comfort and lower electrical bills), and creating safer physical environments for the young and old (removing fall risks and other hazards).

One highlight of my work experience was feedback I got from a family in Brooklyn after we weatherized their Brooklyn apartment to make it more energy efficient. They told me the money they saved by lowering their electric bill allowed them to buy prescription medicines that they previously weren’t able to afford. Thankfully, I have the opportunity to continue to make a difference. I’ve been invited to work with the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative full time after graduation. 

Carolyn Luk: Place Matters

I’m originally from Boston. When it came time to choosing a graduate school, I knew I wanted to be in New York City because it’s the perfect place to study public health. Cities have always played a huge part in my academic and personal life. I’m specifically interested in urban health and how the neighborhoods and places we live, work, and play in shape our health and long-term health outcomes. I love walking around the city and exploring new places, from the excitement of downtown to the quieter neighborhoods of Northern Manhattan.

Last summer, I was one of nine public health students across the country chosen as an Epi Scholar at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. I worked in the First Deputy Commissioner’s Office for Policy, Planning and Strategic Data Use. The Epi Scholars program was a great experience that allowed me to apply the epidemiologic research methods I learned to public health practice. I was able to put my SAS programming skills to good use for my practicum project that looked at how housing and neighborhood conditions influence asthma hospitalizations in New York City public housing developments. The NYC DOHMH is a progressive agency, and people here are committed to using a racial equity and social justice lens to promote health in the city’s most vulnerable populations.

I’m currently still at NYC DOHMH working on a similar analysis for my Master’s thesis in Epidemiology on the social determinants of asthma readmissions of New York City children. After graduating, I will transition from working at the city level to the federal level as a Presidential Management Fellow at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. I’m grateful to Heather Krasna in Career Services who encouraged me to apply for the fellowship. It’s going to be sad leaving New York City so soon but I’m excited by this opportunity. Of course, the Baltimore/DC area is just another new place to explore.

Nyashadzashe C. Makoni: Speaking Up for Myself

I was in the Global Health certificate in Health Policy and Management, so when it came time to do my practicum, working internationally was my goal. It just so happened, I got a job in Zimbabwe, which is where I’m from. I was working with ICAP, an organization based at the Mailman School that is active in dozens of countries around the world, working to fight infectious diseases and strengthen health systems. I was there for seven months and worked on strengthening care for HIV. In recent years, my country has made a lot of progress against HIV, but among certain groups like older men and younger women, it continues to be a major problem.

ICAP gave me a lot of responsibility. I co-supervised a team of 30 data collectors. I made sure they were up to date on our study objectives and their tablet computers were working properly. One of the studies was looking at ways to lower barriers to care. The government provides free HIV care but there are other costs that patients incur. For example, transportation. Patients often have to pay to travel to a clinic to get the medications they need. ICAP is looking at ways to reduce this burden.

I got to use a lot of what I learned in the classroom. You only really know how well you know something when you’re in the field when you have to utilize those skills. I also learned a lot about myself. I was the first intern in that office and also the youngest person and the only woman. I had to assert myself, but it was a balancing act. There were cultural considerations; I didn’t want to disrespect my elders. At the same time, I had to explain that this was my job, and I’m a colleague. I got a lot of respect for that. The single most important thing I learned from my Mailman experience was to speak up for myself. You have to know what you want and how to advocate for yourself to get the message across. I’m more determined now, more focused, and I know exactly what I want for myself.

Will Mellman: Affirming Gender Diversity

My PhD dissertation in Sociomedical Sciences is about the romantic relationships of transgender individuals, specifically as it relates to their identity development and health and well-being. The topic emerged from the work that I do as the Project Director of Project AFFIRM at the Program for the Study of LGBT Health. The work was done under the supervision of Walter Bockting, one of the world’s leading researchers on gender identity. I’ve been following his work since I was in college and was excited to have an opportunity to work closely with him. AFFIRM is a longitudinal study that seeks to learn more about transgender identity development in order to foster resilience and reduce stigma and discrimination among members of the transgender community. Dating and relationships emerged early on during data collection as a key area that contributes to identity development.

The majority of research on trans and genderqueer populations has focused on the challenges they encounter, such as high rates of HIV. There has been little attention to more positive experiences, such as dating and relationships. This dissertation helped bring awareness to this topic—something many participants noted was of great importance as they did not consider relationships an obtainable goal for themselves. Being in an affirming and supportive relationship has been shown in numerous research studies to be good for one’s mental and physical health. The same was found in my dissertation. Participants noted how support from their partners helped affirm their identity, bolster their mental health, and, in general, enhance their overall outlook on life.

The experiences of AFFIRM participants and, specifically those in my dissertation, have given us a sense of how our society dictates how we understand gender roles and how that gets internalized and reproduced in relationships. For instance, participants identified in many ways—gay, straight, queer—and formed heterosexual, homosexual, and queer partnerships. Some were married and had kids while others enjoyed open relationships with their partners. In general, it was great to see how empowered participants were to living their authentic selves and make meaning out of their unique experiences. 

Tori Steven: Forging Global Connections

Given the current political climate, it has been a challenging time to work in global reproductive health. As such, being in PopFam [Population and Family Health] has been an amazing opportunity to connect with people who share my interests, values and commitment to advancing reproductive rights. PopFam faculty and students are incredibly supportive, and I have appreciated the opportunity to work and learn from such an amazing group of public health practitioners.

One of the many highlights of my Mailman experience was completing my summer practicum in the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] with Save the Children and the RAISE Initiative. With this role, I supported these organizations’ research and program activities related to expanding reproductive care access in DRC. I have continued to work with RAISE as a research assistant at Columbia and was able to use qualitative data from the DRC study for my PopFam capstone. In addition, my practicum also gave me the opportunity to attend the 17th annual Interagency Working Group on Reproductive Health in Emergencies (IAWG) in Greece last November. I met dozens of professionals in my field—many of whom it turned out were PopFam grads. The practicum in itself was a wonderful experience, but the fact that it has grown into so many more opportunities is a testament to how well PopFam supports its students and connects us with opportunities for professional growth.

My focus is global, but one of the most rewarding projects I was part of during my time at PopFam took place just a few blocks from the Mailman School, at the Community Health Academy of the Heights (CHAH). As Vice President of the women-run student organization Bloom Girls Mentoring, we ran an afterschool program with 7th and 8th grade girls at CHAH. We covered a diverse array of topics ranging from puberty and menstruation to bullying and self-esteem. Having the opportunity to design Bloom’s curriculum and lesson plans and interact directly with adolescent girls was a wonderful opportunity to gain hands-on experience working in public health and further connect with the Washington Heights community.