Peer Mentoring Gets This Student From Thinking About Med School To Finding Her Dream Job- by Julieta Saluzzo, MPH
After so many years of directing training programs and mentoring students, I have now trained and mentored hundreds of students. I keep in touch with over 80% of them and try to encourage peer mentoring by connecting students and alumni of my programs who may have some common interests. In this guest blog post, Julieta Saluzzo, MPH tells her career journey and two good examples of what peer mentoring can do. In one instance, unsure about whether to go to medical school, she learns from a fellow student about programs for masters in public health. On another instance when she was an intern in my International Exchange Program, she met Dr. Sasha McGee, an alumnus of my program and embarks on a satisfying career as an epidemiologist, a career she had not considered. Read Julieta's story in her own words.
My name is Julieta Saluzzo, and I am 28 years old. Born and raised in Rosario, Argentina, I came to the United States at the age of 9 with my parents and younger sister in search of a more tranquil and financially secure life with more opportunities. My background is something that I have always treasured and which has allowed me to open my mind in many ways. Because I was raised in the US where there is so much diversity, and also having been raised partly in Argentina, I have always been aware of the many different ways of living that exist in our world. This has allowed me to explore with an open heart and mind and to understand others’ stories and realities. In addition, being a Hispanic woman in science and public health has allowed me to pursue invaluable opportunities in research to leverage myself and my career, such as the Mount Sinai International Training Program.
When I look back on my last decade, I see how far I have come: college, personal experiences, graduate school, international research internships, and my first job (fortunately enough, my dream job). I also see that every experience has built upon the ones before, something that I was unable to see at each stage. Lastly, I see that throughout my 10-year journey, there were people who helped me in many different ways. Each of these individuals who have made significant impacts on my life has given me skills, values, and qualities to equip me for not only a fulfilling career but a meaningful and purposeful life. Without these people, whom I call mentors, I would not be the person I am or be standing where I am today.
The Beginning of a Journey
My career path was neither planned nor straight, and growing up, I never had a vocation or knew what I wanted to do or be. In fact, I never would have imagined that I would be in my current role as I did not know that such a job existed until well into my college years. As a curious person, my interests have been many and varied. Yet it was my fascination with the life sciences and my desire to help humans that led me towards health sciences.
After exploring different health-oriented fields in college, I decided to pursue medicine given my interest in infectious diseases and intent to help and work with people. At the time, I thought it was the only career that would suit me. Having decided to take a gap year to apply to medical school, I began working in the research lab of one of my professors whose medical pathology class fueled my passion for learning about infectious diseases. This was a basic science lab that studied steroid hormone action in a breast cancer cell model and was my very first exposure to academic research. The skillset I gained during this role, including my very first publication and the abilities to mentor and train young students, would set the foundation for every experience that would follow.
During this time, I began to question my choice to pursue medicine, as I realized that there are many different fields that encompass my interests and perhaps better fit my curious nature. Additionally, I was starting to realize that medicine would be a huge undertaking for me personally. Therefore, I decided to expand my career lens and began exploring other options.
The work I was doing in the lab was enjoyable and I was quite good at it, yet there was something missing: the people aspect. Around this time, one of my friends was entering her MPH program. After speaking with her about what public health actually was (because I really had no idea), it sounded like the perfect combination of skills and tools to succeed in the areas in which I was passionate. One year later, I was the one embarking on my own Public Health journey at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
My Experiences Abroad
For me, traveling is a way to meet people, get to know other cultures, and expand my view of the world. The way that I prefer to incorporate travel into my life is by experiencing the day-to-day in a new environment by working and/or studying abroad. I have already had two incredible opportunities to do this, and I am striving for more in the near future.
The first time I completed an international research internship was during my MPH in 2016. I went to Santiago, Chile and worked at INTA, the “Instituto de Nutrición y Tecnología de los Alimentos” in the microbiology laboratory under Dr. Angelica Reyes, where I studied the effects of copper on Listeria monocytogenes. This experience has enriched me in ways I could never imagine, by making life-long friendships and mentorships, learning what it means to do research with varying levels of resources and language barriers when it comes to publishing.
I enjoyed this experience so much that I decided to pursue an additional international research program at the end of my MPH. As a Mount Sinai International Program fellow under the mentorship of Dr. Luz Claudio, I went to Dublin, Ireland. Before departing to our host countries, we had a week-long orientation in New York City. This was one of the most memorable weeks of my life. As part of the orientation, we received training in different areas of conducting research, heard from previous alumni of the program about their own experiences and where they are now, and prepared ourselves personally with Dr. Claudio for our research abroad.
In Dublin, I worked at Trinity College of Dublin in the laboratory of Dr. Laure Marignol, where I researched biomarkers for treatment resistance in prostate cancer cells. This experience allowed me to use the skills I learned in my first research experience with my professor in the lab by coming from a subject matter expert viewpoint and enabled me to develop my mentoring skills by teaching new students.
Through the Mount Sinai International Program, I built strong relationships with mentors who have shaped and guided me throughout and long-after the internship. They have provided support, guidance, opportunities for the future, and friendship. The benefits of doing an international research internship are life-long, providing skills and invaluable opportunities that will not only make you a better professional in your field but a better human being.
Fast Forward to the Present
Currently, I am the Legionella Epidemiologist at the Department of Health in Washington DC. My role is split between that of an epidemiologist and a program coordinator-which is great because I get to do both research and applied public health work. As an epidemiologist, I conduct surveillance and investigations of cases and outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease. As the coordinator for the Legionella Surveillance Program, I collaborate with and serve as a resource to stakeholders (e.g. other government agencies, healthcare facilities, the public) for Legionnaires’ disease prevention activities in DC.
During the Mount Sinai International Exchange Program, the importance of networking and mentorship was very encouraged. The way I arrived at my current position at the health department stemmed from the opportunity to network with one of the program alumni, Dr. Sasha McGee, whose journey reminded me very much of my own. After the program, I reached out to Dr. McGee seeking guidance during a time of uncertainty, and little did I know how much that would impact my life. After that initial phone call, Dr. McGee became a mentor to me, guiding me through the job-seeking process and giving me encouragement and advice. Eventually, I obtained a position working alongside Dr. McGee, one of the people whom I most admire. The past 10 years have not only allowed me to design my trajectory but to discover myself and my place in the world. Looking back at my career trajectory, I see that the job I hold now beautifully and delicately reflects my story thus far.
Obstacles Along the Way and the Tools for Overcoming Them
Of course, no journey gets on without a few walls to break along the way. Since I was very young, I have struggled with anxiety, and during my educational and professional experiences, impostor syndrome. Over time, I have learned to recognize them and deal with these head-on by working hard and with support from my friends and family. One of the ways I have worked through these is by learning to prioritize my own mental and physical health when necessary by doing activities that relax me and bring me joy, such as cooking and baking or going out for coffee with a dear friend.
Some tools that have helped me during tough times have been journaling and having a friend to talk to who understands what I am going through. I have also learned to trust my intuition and judgment in situations (from past positive experiences), allowing me to form a secure relationship with myself. These actions have helped to strengthen my self-confidence and self-efficacy. Lastly, I have never let myself shy away from doing that which drives my anxiety and impostor syndrome because that is adding fuel to the fire. You must find the water that will put it out instead- in my case, the positive experiences I’ve had, the amazing people I’ve met along the way, and recognizing the meaningful impact I have had on the world.
Looking in Hindsight and Advice to the Future
If I could go back ten years, there are some things that I wish I would have known or done differently. First, the realization that there are many different paths to many different outcomes: I wish I would have known that there are interests and there are skills and that those can be very different from each other but can be readily intertwined in many different jobs. While I do not regret the path I carved out for myself (I am actually very proud of it), I would have been more patient and less pressured.
Second, I wish I would have known to reach out to professors for research opportunities or internships during my undergraduate. Being a first-generation US college student, I did not know that I could have sought out internships like the Mount Sinai International Program during my undergraduate and would have reaped the benefits of mentorship and networking much earlier in my career.
My advice to others in similar career paths would be to not shy away from contacting professors whose research you find interesting, or alumni whose advice you seek on potential career paths. Most, if not all of the people you approach will be more than happy to speak with you and share their stories. And one never knows who will serve as a mentor and in what way. I would also advise others to say “yes” to each and every opportunity that comes your way because there will almost always be something to take home. Lastly, I would advise others to not worry about forming the perfect or most straightforward path- just follow your interests, curiosity, and strengths, and the path will shape itself.
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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.