As some of you may or may not know, I’m working on my DrPH in epidemiology. The “doctor of public health” degree is a little different from the traditional PhD that we all know and love because it is more practice-oriented than research-oriented. While I do need to know the principles behind how epidemiological studies are done in a controlled setting (e.g. a randomized clinical trail or a cohort study), my career after I get the degree will be more about putting the findings of such studies to work. For example, if several studies confirm that a particular chemical is dangerous to humans, it will be my job to help authorities mitigate the exposures to those chemicals. Or, if there is a public health problem, my job would be to look at all the available evidence and make the best recommendation(s) that I can make.
Between the second year of school and the beginning of work on my thesis, I am required to do 100 hours of a professional practicum experience in a public health setting. This is not the same as an internship, by the way. This requires actual work with people at an executive level within a public health organization, be it a health department, and NGO doing public health work, or an international agency for public health (e.g. The World Health Organization). Once that is done, I take a couple of oral exams (one for the epidemiology department and another for the school) and then I’ll be able to start work on the thesis in full.
To fulfill the practicum experience requirements, I will be traveling overseas for a couple of weeks. In choosing the site, my advisor and I looked at my strengths and weaknesses. My strengths come from my experiences at the state health department, where I worked for six years doing disease surveillance and aiding in outbreak response.
Another one of my strengths comes from my time in the clinical laboratory. If you add up all the time that I worked at a lab — from when I was an apprentice at age 16 to when I became a medical technologist at 21, to when I ended my last job a couple of weeks ago — then I’ve been doing lab work for a long time. In that time, I learned about microbiology, biochemistry, and all sorts of things about disease processes and even about how hospitals work (or should work).
My weaknesses are that I haven’t really had much experience in executive-level settings. At the health department, most of the decisions were made by “the adults” (the name we used for the chiefs of divisions and their bosses). At the lab, most of the decisions were made by the lab manager and his/her bosses. In essence, I was just a grunt. In a way, that was an easy place to be. I could just keep my head down and do the work. If something didn’t work well, it was the bosses who took the responsibility. On the other hand, if I saw that something wasn’t being done as it should, I didn’t have much say in fixing it. I could air my concerns, but it wasn’t up to me to fix things… Most of the time.
So where am I going? Glad you asked.
In the past, I’ve been a little hesitant to publicly announce where I’m working and what kind of work I do. This is because there have been several instances where anti-vaccine people have come after my job(s). (And not just my job. They’ve gone after others’ jobs as well.) They seem to be on the lookout to see where we are working in order to file complaints against us. The complaints are often laughable, but they’re hassles that interfere in our work.
Today, I’m not so worried. I’ve successfully completed the first two years of a doctoral program at the most prestigious school of public health on the planet. I’ve opened my mouth over and over in class, and outside of class, and I haven’t gotten in trouble because of my opinions or even because of the facts that I point out. It’s called academic freedom, and I enjoy a lot of it as a student. Outside of school, it’s called freedom of speech, and it is protected by the laws and regulations of this country and the country where I’m going. So long as I don’t say something with malice, with the intent of hurting others, and I back up all my claims with facts… I’m good. I’m untouchable.
So where am I going?
I grew up in the desert of northern Mexico and western Texas. When it got hot there, it really got hot. I remember one day when we went to play soccer and several of us started to not feel well. My younger brother went to a tree and sat under the shade, dowsing himself with water. As it turns out, that was one of the hottest days in El Paso, Texas. The temperature peaked at 114º Fahrenheit. But it was a dry heat. Still, half of us probably ended up with heat exhaustion. (That July in El Paso and the rest of the southwest was brutal, by the way. One night, the temperature struggled to go below 85 degrees.)
When I moved to Pennsylvania, I immediately noticed the difference between the dry heat of the desert and the humid, oppressive heat of the mid-Atlantic. Humid heat makes everything stick to you. And I do mean everything. It felt horrible for the first summer that I was there, but I adapted as time went on. I learned to carry water, wear light clothing, and have handkerchiefs or napkins around to wipe the sweat off my face and neck, especially before an important meeting. Still, the hot days break and we get some cooler days. It’s not 90+ degrees every day, year round.
No, seriously, where am I going?
I’m going to Colombia. I’ll be working with a local school of public health and a health ministry on different aspects of their public health preparedness and communicable disease surveillance. I’m going to be in the north of the country, right up next to the Caribbean Sea. They tell me that it is very hot there and that the humidity is horrible. They tell me that I should get up very early because most everyone gets into their office early to avoid the heat of the day. I’m told to get ready for some oppressive heat.
Really? How how hot could it be?
Aside from going places around Baltimore without relying much on air conditioning, I’ve also gotten my Hepatitis A and Yellow Fever vaccines. I’m also getting some malaria prophylaxis. My wife and I have been going out for jogs and walks on the hottest times of the day. With that, and my knowledge of epidemiology, I should be ready for this trip.
Be sure to check in for updates, and pictures… Lots and lots of pictures.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.