Taking the Leap

This week is National Public Health Week!  APHL will be posting stories from staff on our blog all week.  However, these aren’t your typical public health stories.  They aren’t from our program staff or the folks working in the laboratories; they are from staff whose jobs could be done anywhere for any type of organization yet they choose to work in public health.  Their journeys to public health are unique, but what keeps them here is quite similar.  


By LaToya Norman, Public Health Communications Intern, APHL

“Are Public Health and Chemistry related?” This is a question I often face when telling people of my decision to transition from chemistry to public health. No one seems to understand the connection between the two fields or my reason for making the switch.  Most people assume that I woke up one morning and decided to quit my job as a scientist. But give me more credit than that—I’m a methodical Virgo! My plan was well thought out and over a good amount of time. I hope this blog post sets the records straight.

LaToya Norman In 1998, my grandmother was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)—a chronic autoimmune disease that causes the body to attack healthy tissue. The disease affects major organs and is considered incurable. For years, I watched my grandmother slowly deteriorate from the disease and eventually pass away.  This experience had a big impact on me—I decided to study chemistry in college and work in a pharmaceutical laboratory after school to help discover treatments for autoimmune disorders and other diseases deemed incurable.

At the lab, I worked on the bench for two years before broader aspirations came calling. I began to feel the urge to make a more direct and immediate contribution towards enhancing health. Although it was an honor to assist in developing medicine for various diseases, the reality is that it takes several years for a drug to reach the market… “IF” it gets the blessing of the FDA. As a pharmaceutical scientist, my main concern has always been improving the health of individuals. It was not until volunteering with an HIV/AIDS organization that I began to consider protecting health on a population level. Working with that organization made me realize how much public health and chemistry had in common; both fields serve to improve health and prolong life. However, public health, as we know, is more prevention-focused and supports healthy communities.

This was (for you Oprah fans) my “aha!” moment: I could work in public health to satisfy my desire to help more people, while continuing to uphold the same principles that inspired me to pursue chemistry (enhancing health and protecting lives). At that moment, I began to look at the world of health with a whole new perspective. No longer was I focused on helping manage disease for an individual, I now wanted to PREVENT disease for an entire population. So, I applied for graduate school and was accepted into The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services (try saying that ten times fast!). I chose to study Public Health Communication and Marketing because our world is so communication-driven that I felt it was the best outlet for what I hoped to achieve. How can you teach people to be healthy and prevent disease if you can’t communicate effectively with them? Months later, here I am at the Association of Public Health Laboratories living out my dream.

What do I hope to gain from Public Health?

This question bears a very simple answer: To be able to look at the world around me and know that I am helping to protect the life of every person I encounter.


More stories from APHL staff for National Public Health Week:

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