Denisonians in Health Professions: Public Health

Denisonians in health professions: public - clare-meernik-253x300.png image #0Clare Meernik ’12

Role: Public Health-Epidemiology

Graduate School attended: University of Michigan School of Public Health, graduated in 2014

Current Job: Research Associate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Tobacco Prevention and Evaluation Program

Fun Fact:
After grad school, I bought my first road bike and started competing in triathlons. Since I started racing two years ago, I’ve completed 8 triathlons, including four Half Ironmans.      

Describe the process you went through to select your career path: what impacted your decision?
I always knew I wanted to pursue a career in health sciences, but the only solid options I was aware of were becoming a doctor, a PA, or a PT. Thinking about the hours and time involved with attending medical school was not appealing to me, not to mention my dislike of blood and other gross stuff involving the body. I came across public health, and specifically epidemiology, as a career option while interning at the University of Kentucky Ovarian Cancer Screening Center the summer between my sophomore and junior years at Denison. Epidemiology is concerned with understanding, preventing, and treating disease at the population level, rather than on a case by case basis that a doctor deals with. I liked the idea that, as an epidemiologist, I would have the potential to improve health outcomes on a broad scale; for instance, epidemiologists are involved in developing cancer screening recommendations for the entire population (e.g., who should be screened and when? What negative effects result from over screening?). Once I became aware of epidemiology as a career path, I knew it was the perfect choice for me.

What are your favorite aspects of your profession?
My favorite part of being in the public health field is that my colleagues all genuinely care about improving people’s lives. Public health programs are continually being underfunded or even cut, at the expense of our nation’s health and our ability to respond to public health crisis such as an epidemic of an infectious disease. Everyone I have interacted with in the public health field continues to fight for increased funding of programs and enactment of policies that improve health outcomes and overcome health disparities.           

What is the most challenging aspect of your work?
Public health funding is often not on the top of policymakers’ budgets because the dollars and lives saved are often not seen until they are long out of office. Specifically, in my field, tobacco is considered by many to be an old issue that we’ve already conquered, resulting in severe underfunding of tobacco control and prevention programs. The fact is, more than 35 million Americans still smoke, resulting in nearly 500,000 deaths each year in the U.S. Tobacco control and prevention is a top priority in the public health field, though convincing policymakers to fund programs and enact policies that address the huge burden of tobacco remains challenging.

Describe what a typical day looks like for you.
My typical day involves a variety of different projects, which always keeps me on my feet. I may be conducting data analysis related to the evaluation of community-based tobacco cessation programs, which involves descriptive statistics (e.g., What are the demographics of those who enrolled in the programs?) and regression models (e.g., What demographic and program utilization factors are associated with tobacco cessation 7 months after the end of the program?). In addition to program evaluation, I am also involved in various tobacco control research projects. For instance, I managed a study examining how the different packaging elements of little cigar and cigarillos (e.g., pack color, flavor, and warnings) affects people’s perception and use of those products. My role in the project involved developing survey items, data analysis and interpretation, and drafting a manuscript for publication.  

What advice would you give a student interested in pursuing your field?
Epidemiology is a great career path for someone who is passionate about improving health at a local, national, or international level. The number of different paths within epidemiology are endless–from HIV prevention in Swaziland to cancer screening in rural Appalachia. If you are interested in potentially pursuing a career as an epidemiologist, take as many statistics and data analytics courses you can while at Denison; these will help tremendously in preparing you for your MPH. If you are nearing the end of your Denison career and have not had the opportunity to take many of these courses, don’t worry! I went into my MPH not having the opportunity to take any courses related to public health while at Denison. Many of my classmates in grad school were biology or health science majors, but many were not. Public health graduate programs are interested in students with diverse backgrounds, not just those from the health sciences. As long as you can demonstrate a passion for why you want to pursue a career in public health, programs will be interested in you!