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Meet Your Public Health Ambassador, Katie Overbey


In August 2017, the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health announced the inaugural cohort of “This is Public Health” Ambassadors. Representatives from 13 different schools and programs were selected through an application process to serve for one academic year as “ambassadors” for public health.

Ambassadors help elevate awareness of public health research and its impact on individuals, communities and whole populations. Additionally, ambassadors serve as liaisons for prospective students of public health, helping them identify potential academic paths and opportunities. They attend graduate school fairs and host webinars to answer questions from prospective students, and participate in social media takeovers to give new perspectives on various paths in public health.

Katie Overbey, one of two Bloomberg School students, is among the first contingent of ambassadors. Here, she shares her path to public health, what she loves most and where she tells Baltimore newcomers to visit in Charm City.

I’ve always been interested in science. In high school, I wanted to be a doctor. I went to undergrad at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and started as a biology major.

I later realized that while the science and the health aspects appealed to me, I wasn’t interested in one-on-one patient care. On a whim, I enrolled in an environmental microbiology class through the school of public health [UNC Gillings]. Before that point, I didn’t know that public health was an option as a career field, and it ended up being a perfect fit. I became interested in communication and, realizing how poor some scientists are at it, it was important to me in public health.

It’s hard to look for schools of public health and not come across the Hopkins name! But a big part of it was my adviser, Kellogg Schwab. He does a lot of water quality research, which is what I wanted to do. I liked the research coming out of his lab, and I liked his advising style, so that had a big impact.

The resources that Hopkins has, the connections with the medical school and with other universities and organizations, those were also a big draw. I knew there would be a lot of options and opportunities if I came here.

In Environmental Health and Engineering we have engineers, microbiologists, toxicologists, food systems people, and this mix of researchers who are all doing really different things. I think [combining Environmental Health and Environmental Engineering] is a big benefit for both environmental health and public health. They enhance each other.

I’ll be studying norovirus, a foodborne illness that some call a stomach flu or winter vomiting bug. I will probably be looking at removal of norovirus in water systems, particularly water treatment systems. There are some recent developments in the technology used to detect norovirus, so that opens up a lot of conveniently timed options for my PhD.

It’s definitely a really big driver in my degree experience. [Schwab’s] advising style and his interest in not just giving me lab skills but helping me become an actual functional scientist has been really important.

He wants you to learn how to read papers, how to write papers, how to communicate, how to develop a research plan that’s really well thought-out. Having an adviser that meshes with my goals as a scientist has been an important impact.

I think one of the things that was really impactful for me was the November 2017 Water is Life talk with the Center for American Indian Health. They convened a panel of Native American activists and leaders for the protection of water, and it was inspiring to hear them talk about pushing for different ways to fight climate change. As a person that studies water, it was really cool to hear.

What I was hoping for—and what did happen—is that everyone I meet genuinely cares about what they’re doing. They’re not just at Hopkins for the Hopkins name; they’re here because they care about whatever aspect of health they’re working on and they really want to make a tangible difference.

I think the diversity of people that Hopkins attracts is really one of its strengths. In Environmental Health and Engineering we have engineers, microbiologists, toxicologists, food systems people, and this mix of researchers who are all doing really different things.

I think [combining Environmental Health and Environmental Engineering] is a big benefit for both environmental health and public health. They enhance each other.

I was a bit nervous about moving to Baltimore. I had been in North Carolina for six years, and everyone asked me if I’ve watched The Wire. But now, I love Baltimore. The city has its issues, but it really is a wonderful place. I love where I live. There’s a surprising sense of community. There’s great food, great bars, always a lot of stuff going on.

It really interested me because I went into undergrad not knowing what public health was, and public health was actually the perfect fit for me.

My freshman year of undergrad, I asked an academic adviser, “I’m really interested in health, but I don’t want to be a doctor, do you have any ideas?” and she never mentioned public health! That really motivated me to want to do this, because it would have helped me knowing about public health earlier, and knowing what my options were.

As an ambassador, we help oversee some web chats where students can ask about applications and other aspects of public health grad school. If there are ASPPH career fairs nearby, we go to those, too. It’s a lot of outreach, plus there are Twitter chats throughout, and we will each do a social media takeover for a week.

It’s almost like a “pay it forward” thing. It’s been nice to offer up my experiences and, hopefully, help other people who are looking to do similar things. It’s been cool to interact with people who are interested in public health and have questions.

In the activities that we’ve done so far—the career fair and the ASPPH online webinars—those students kind of already know they want to go into public health.

A lot of questions we got were, “What can I do with this degree? If I get this, where can I go with this? If I get X specialty versus another specialty, what can I do with it and what are my options?” These are really important question to ask because not only is public health a great field, there are so many different options and so many different choices.

This past summer, a professor at a conference asked me what I wanted to do, and I gave my general response: “I don’t know what sector I want to work in, but I’m really interested in food and water microbiology and safety.”

The professor told me if I want to survive the PhD, I needed a strong goal. I brushed it off, and then the second year hit, and things started to go wrong in my research. This is the point where you really start getting into the nitty gritty of the PhD.

I realized I need to think harder about this. I spent the last few months talking to people I look up to who have a similar degree. I asked them about their jobs to get more insight into what they do and tried to narrow down what I want to do. The current trajectory is that I have a lot of interest in working in a government lab, in government epidemiology or outbreak investigation, something in that realm. Having a more specific idea has really motivated me.

It was surprisingly really, really great advice.

A big thing that helped me was talking to people! Talk to people and get their opinions about what they do or what they teach, or talk to professors who taught classes that you really enjoyed.

Graduate degrees are no joke, and even a master’s degree is a lot of time, a lot of money and a lot of energy. Really having an understanding of why you want it and what motivates you to get it when you go in will make you a stronger applicant.

This is a small field but [in public health], everyone knows everyone, which makes that networking piece so much more important. You never know who you might connect with and meet and what they might be doing in the future. My master’s adviser did her PhD with Dr. Schwab, it is a small world. That initial contact, even just getting a vibe of the department, was helpful.


This interview originally appeared as a news story titled, "Meet Your Public Health Ambassadors."