Immigrant from Ghana and Mother of Three Children Finds Success as an Author, Researcher, and Economics Fellow by Sharon Attipoe-Dorcoo, PhD, MPH, MS
Caption: Dr. Sharon Attipoe and her three children, honored with Dr. Jonathan Fielding, Distinguished Professor at UCLA in the Fielding School of Public Health and the Geffen School of Medicine.
Dr. Sharon Attipoe-Dorcoo, a children’s book author, was one of my interns in the International Training Program for Minority Students some years ago. She is a successful business owner, consultant, and an ORISE Economics Fellow with the Community Guide at the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention (CDC). Here is Sharon’s story in her own words.
I was born in Ghana and remember growing up trying to find identity in the career path I wanted to pursue. I was determined to be a lawyer because I got into trouble several times in school as “talkative”. Yep, lawyers were chatterboxes in my mind! It wasn’t until I emigrated from Ghana to the United States (US) that I had the thought of going into healthcare. Even then I had the delusion of being a doctor and a lawyer at the same, although I now believe in that possibility more than I did back then. In hindsight, this fiery attitude, together with my faith and beliefs were precisely the things I needed to get to where I am today.
I have realized over the years that the concept of social descriptions of any human being is as complex as a spider web. Being an immigrant, who spent my teenage years and early adulthood in the US, I have encountered the dichotomy trying to find my place in the world. However, with time, I now consider myself plainly as a bicultural, millennial woman of African descent, Christian, wife, mom, scientist, author, and aspiring trailblazer in the field of health. I left Ghana when I was 16 years to live in the US and to further my studies. Throughout high school, I challenged myself with advanced courses while maneuvering the different cultures I was exposed to in my new country. I liked discovery and learning about the way things worked because it was fun, but I was never satisfied with just reading theories from books. Instead, I was fascinated with taking apart electrical objects, figuring out how the different components worked, then putting them back together. With the lack of professional mentors in my life at that time, I pursued my interests solely based on gut feelings, the strength and wit I observed from the women in my life such as my grandmother, and my level of passion for different topics. This experience has served me well as a female researcher who is capable of making both scientific and ethical decisions in my research projects.
I finally encountered professional mentors such as Dr. Luz Claudio, who tugged on one of my strings of interests, which was to find a way to combine my love for the engineering sciences with the social sciences. I was moved by her talk about finding my own path in my career. Her words “find your own path in your career and be open to opportunities for career options that may not even yet exist”. That advice sticks with me even today, because I am able to appreciate the beauty in the way I think, the way I like to approach solutions to problems I am passionate about solving, and also the way I see the need to make research impactful, and not just some type of academic activity.
This way of thinking came into play when I was considering how to present findings from a recent economic study for an abstract on dissemination and implementation. I induced the fact that research brokering in the field of dissemination and implementation requires stakeholders who always come to the table with the focus of what is in it for them. How does the engineering part of my brain deal with this? Imagine that the various frequency channels of radio stations represent the different stakeholders and turning the radio dial to the frequency of interest corresponds to a particular stakeholder. When a stakeholder affiliated with that specific frequency, then the needs of that stakeholder are met.
Critical to my finding balance in both my work and personal life, are my faith in God and the support of my family. I am blessed to be married to my best friend for over a decade, and we have three beautiful children. Being a successful female scientist is not an easy feat without having an outlet in my life where I am constantly reminded of who I am and what my capabilities are. I am fortunate to be able to have outstanding support from my husband and our three amazing children. My family is more than an asset to me as I look back at the critical decisions I have made in my career and how they are all linked in one way or the other to the birth of my three children. I am forever reminded to be present in this fact with every obstacle I face in my work on a daily basis.
My interests have always been related to the influence of technology and engineering on health. Consequently, after completing my Master’s Degree in Biomedical Science and Biotechnology, I went to work for a company that manufactured medical devices. During my several visits to health delivery centers, I was constantly drawn to the impact these devices had on patients’ health and what policies were in place to ensure that these devices were not only available to improve health outcomes but were used safely as well. I majored in health services research during the course of my Master’s in Public Health and had the opportunity to learn about the US healthcare system and the discussion around access, quality, and costs driving healthcare.
In the course of my graduate school education as a doctoral student, I had the opportunity to learn more about the healthcare system of the US. My analytical and scientific communication skills prepared me for my internship at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, where I designed and carried out research on media coverage of a HPV vaccination campaign. I gained experience in proposal development, manuscript writing, the conceptualization of a research framework for analysis, coding of media articles, and developing a database with variables in addition to performing descriptive analyses. In addition to completing the project, I presented my work to a panel of researchers at the University of Cape Town and published my work in the Southern African Journal of Gynaecological Oncology. The challenge involved with conducting research abroad in a limited amount of time was one I had to learn to overcome. My ability to adapt to these challenges and produce results has prepared me for working in similar settings. My academic achievements span different research contexts and include international research experience in Ghana. I worked at the Ghana Health Services and conducted a comparative cost-effectiveness analysis between two outreach programs with a target population of pregnant women.
All of these achievements were not without obstacles, but with my continuous belief in the purpose God and the help of my family, I was able to overcome the several obstacles and still continue to flourish in my journey. I have a husband who was willing to sacrifice immediate financial comforts and his time, to enable me to pursue my doctoral degree. My mom stepped in to help raise my children during the course of the degree, and more importantly, my amazing children, who quickly understood their mom was working towards something important, provided me with great support in their own little way. The best moments of my daily journey are when I get to share my professional feats with my family, especially my children. I shared with my children the joy of publishing a children’s book that is dedicated to them. I also take them to conferences and work events. I regard these moments as priceless components of my journey.
Throughout my journey, the opportunities or coincidences that I have come across have all played a critical role in molding and tempering me into the role I am in now. Experiences such as seeking research internships and fellowships to gain real-life experiences, and my decision to conduct primary data collection for my dissertation work, which granted me the opportunity to gain a life-lasting friendship with my dissertation supervisor, have all been impactful in shaping my career path. Throughout all these experiences, the primary factor that made the most difference, although I wish I had been exposed to these earlier in my career, was professional mentoring. My fortunate encounters with mentors, both personal and professional, who believed in my capabilities and my natural curiosity to learn have truly been rewarding. An example of a great professional mentoring experience is currently at the CDC where my mentor told me on the first day of my fellowship that he wanted me to present to a Task Force, comprising of a team of public health experts, on the topic of the economic evaluation of a community-based intervention. I thought he was joking, but he confirmed it the next day, and I did not regret his decision.
I will be remiss, however, if I did not mention the importance of finding a balance both with my work and life outside my career. Within the space of my career, there is the constant challenge of finding the balance between my voice and interests and advice from experienced individuals. In my personal life, finding the balance between what I can handle independently and when to lean into the fantastic support of family and friends is the daily lesson. Finding the balance also involves identifying the parts of me that are unique to me, that enables me to enjoy life, and bring my family closer despite the constant time battle between life and work. Singing at church, traveling with my husband and kids, and watching TV shows with my family help keep me grounded and staying present to what is important. These moments allow me to excel in my career. Identifying this strength is a necessary part of making career choices and the boldness to undertake such decisions is not always easy. If there is anything I would have liked to learn earlier in my career, it is to have someone to share this truth with me. Seeking further funding opportunities to alleviate some of the financial strain I encountered in my doctoral degree program is something I would have loved to have known earlier in my career as well.
In the grand scheme of things, my ability to take advantage of all the opportunities that came my way, such as the excellent opportunity to be a student board member of AcademyHealth, has created a great network that I heavily depend on in my career trajectory. If I were to provide some advice for upcoming students, it would be to find their passion, seek funding, and create a support system to help them achieve their goals and dreams. Investing in myself, no matter how difficult, being more open to reaching out to people, believing in my God-given purpose, sharing my dreams, not being afraid to take risks, and being fortunate to have the support of my family, have been critical elements to helping place value on my skills and expertise.
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Dr. Luz Claudio is an environmental health scientist, mother and consultant, originally from Puerto Rico. She is a tenured professor of environmental medicine and public health. Luz recently published her first book: How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper: The Step-by-Step Guide. Dr. Claudio has internship programs and resources for young scientists. Opinions expressed in this blog are solely her own and may not reflect her employer's views.