By: Bertina Su, MPH, senior specialist, Laboratory Systems and Standards, APHL
Last fall I was invited back to my alma mater to talk about life after University of Maryland’s (UMD) Master of Public Health (MPH) program. A former classmate was coordinating an informational session for undergraduate students to help them get a sense of where the MPH grads went in their careers; she asked me to participate and I happily accepted both because she is a friend but also because I could have used an event like this when I was finishing my undergrad degree.
My journey into public health was not something that I planned. I earned a bachelor’s degree from Washington and Lee in chemistry, but as graduation loomed, I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life after receiving my diploma. Reality was sinking in. My fellow chemistry classmates went into research or continued to medical school, and while those options seemed to be the logical next steps, they were not the right fit for me.
I took a year off after graduation to volunteer at Bread for the City, a non-profit in Washington, DC, that provides food, clothing, medical care, legal and social services residents in need; it was there that I became exposed to the world of public health. I worked in the medical clinic doing mostly administrative work helping with health insurance enrollment and coordinating health education programs. I began to understand what public health was, and that I could use my science education in this field to help people. I spoke with many of the staff about how they found their way into public health, and they all had MPH degrees. It became clear that if I wanted to move my career in this direction, I needed to find an MPH program that worked for me. Before I knew it, I was back in school learning about biostatistics, program evaluation and epidemiology. After completing UMD’s two-year MPH program, I interviewed for a program manager position at APHL, and I have been here ever since.
Fast forward a few years… There I am setting up my information table at UMD’s School of Public Health featuring APHL’s Annual Report, Lab Matters and my own business cards. I even wore my APHL STAPH staff t-shirt. I had the opportunity to speak with several students who asked questions mostly about my MPH experience and responsibilities at APHL. Some were not familiar with either public health laboratories or association work, so it was rewarding to expand their knowledge. I talked about my quality improvement and survey work, but their ears really perked up when I told them that I get to travel and work with people all over the country.
I’d love to see undergraduate public health programs hold more events like this one to give the next round of graduates the opportunity to hear from alumni about their journey into the public health workforce and about other career paths they had not considered. While my path into public health may have been unconventional, I am thankful that I took it. The work has been rewarding, and I hope that my participation will encourage another public health student to pursue an equally fulfilling position.
I encourage you to contact your alma mater to share your knowledge, experience and lessons-learned with public health students. You just might inspire someone to pursue a career in a public health lab.
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