As scientists, we are used to giving seminars, presentations, and speeches to different audiences. For some people, it is easy. For others like me, it is the stuff nightmares are made of. But no audience is more challenging than a group of children. If you don’t catch their attention quickly and retain it, you are doomed. I have seen colleagues who are brilliant tenured professors in their jobs, have epic fails when presenting to a classroom full of schoolchildren. I know, I’ve been one of the epic fails.
And the thing is, there is an increasing need for engaging children in doing science. To have a more diverse and dynamic scientific workforce, children need to be exposed to role models early and often. They need to see what it might be like for them to be a scientist, that there are scientists who look like them, and that science is, well, awesome!
Here are five quick tips to keep in mind whenever you have an eager and demanding audience of children for your presentation, whether your presentation is on national TV or at your child’s school.
One of the most cringe-worthy videos that I have ever seen online is the one of Senator Dianne Feinstein talking to a group of young climate activists. Agh! The video has everything: interrupting the children, the “I have 30 years of experience,” dismissive comments, and, gasp! Telling a girl of color to “take that back to whoever sent you here” Even the senator’s body language, with her arms crossed and literally talking down to the children is the very definition of condescending. It’s as hard to watch as a terrible car crash. Ugh!
The looks of disappointment, frustration, and sadness on the children’s faces is just heartbreaking. You don’t want to break children’s hearts, do you? If you can stomach watching this video to the end, remember it next time you are talking to children about science or any other topic. Let it be a cautionary tale of what not to do. Believe me, I know. I may have done something like this in the past, especially before I had children. Thankfully, it was not caught on tape, but now I know better. There is no excuse for treating children like this.
Instead of a condescending attitude, try to remind yourself of what you are there to do. You should not expect that the children will learn all that there is to know about your topic from that one presentation. Your purpose is to encourage their curiosity and to leave them inspired. Remember that. See the infamous video here: https://youtu.be/jEPo34LCss8
When you are the real you, it is palpable. If you love your career in science, this will naturally show through your presentation, whether you are funny or serious. One way to get yourself into it is to start your presentation by saying something about that moment. Offering a comment about the nice room where you are giving the presentation, or the weather, or anything that is happening in the now, will get you in touch with yourself at that moment and help you feel more present.
In my presentations, I just try to let my real personality show and be authentic. Even if that gets me off the script a little bit, it helps me to get into it and enjoy giving the presentation.
There is a whole field of study on communicating science to the general public. Sometimes, it is not so easy to do. Use any tools that may help you visualize and explain your concepts. Can you use analogies? Can you create an infographic? Can you make a diagram or use props to illustrate your ideas? Think creatively. The act of simplifying your content to its core will also help you in generating new ideas and seeing your science with a different perspective. It is worth also doing this when you are presenting to diverse audiences that are not in your field, and even for grant proposals.
We have studied how groups of lay audiences, such as study participants, can gain increased knowledge when complex information is presented in simple but impactful formats. Here is one of our studies in this area: https://www.drluzclaudio.com/uploads/2/6/2/6/26264188/claudio_et_al_communicating_environmental_health.pdf
And above all, do not reject invitations to speak at your local elementary schools as unimportant or a waste of your time. You never know if you will spark an idea in a young mind. This happened to me as a young person. The first time I met an actual working scientist, I was in 12th grade. It was the US energy crisis, and scientists from Oak Ridge National Laboratory came to my school in Puerto Rico to teach us how to save energy. I will never forget the scientist’s presentation in which he asked: Which razor saves more energy to the country, the electric razor, or the disposable blade? That was it! I was hooked on science.
It seems like nowadays, whenever we hear the word "environment" in the media, it refers to the latest disaster caused by the climate crisis or the latest commonplace chemical found to cause cancer. Children, of course, are exposed to this barrage of information and feel helpless and hopeless. The environment is bad, and there's nothing they can do about it.
Yes. The situation is dire. But unless we give some sense of empowerment to children, how can we expect them to care? Some children have turned to activism, but it is not every day that students can walk out of class in protest. For the most part, all that children hear is the predictions of environmental doom. And they are going to tune it off.
With that in mind, I agreed to participate in this great new TV program called Mission Unstoppable. With support from the Lyda Hill Philanthropies, it aims to show how STEM can be part of our everyday lives, and for at least some of us, STEM can also be at the center of our careers. The show focuses on women doing all kinds of STEM things, because well, why not? It doesn't beat you over the head to say that "girls can do anything." Instead, it shows you diverse girls doing everything and anything that has to do with STEM skills.
The producers filmed 8 hours of me talking for a 4-minute feature! That in itself was eyeopening for me. I didn't know how much work it takes to produce TV content.
In the interview, I tried to show that:
As my daughter said when she saw the show: "That was really cool." For me, to go from dork to cool, even if only for four minutes, is a step forward.
Thanks to Adina Pliskin and Robyn Ramirez from Litton TV and to interviewer Erica Hernandez. Thanks also to Mount Sinai staff and students Marlene Naanes, Lisa Cole, Chrystal Galan Rivera, and Frances Morales Ramos, for their assistance during the long hours of filming.
Promotional video for Mission Unstoppable, Saturday mornings on CBS Network
Talking to children about your career in science can be totally unpredictable. Even when you prepare a nice presentation and in-depth discussion about the pros and cons of a career in science, children will always surprise you with their reactions and questions.
In my TED Talk, I mention a presentation I did about the results of an environmental health assessment to a group of girls who had participated in the study. I was surprised to be asked about my high-heel shoes and my curly hair!
On another occasion, I did a cow eye dissection at my daughter's school. While the girls' eyes got super big and they covered their mouths in gasps, the boys ran away from the dissection tray. One of them nearly fainted and had to sit down. Another boy said he "barfed a little bit". But slowly, once the children got engaged in the activity, they did not want to stop. They marveled at the gooey vitreous, looked through the lens, and drew pictures of the colorful tapetum lucidum. Years later, I'm known in the school as the "mom-scientist". The father of one of my daughter's classmates said: "she curiously dissects even the fish she eats for dinner".
So I should have been prepared when I was interviewed for a new TV Show called Mission Unstoppable to air Saturday Mornings on CBS starting October 12. After the show, the producers asked women scientists to read questions submitted by children. In this episode, we were asked: How Useful Would You Be In a Zombie Apocalypse? According to my 12-year-old daughter, that's a thing...
In my response, I had more questions than answers because I don't know much about zombies. Still, I'm a scientist and a mom, so I know I would be really useful if one day the zombies do come. ;)
Watch the show on TV (Saturday mornings on the CBS Network) or subscribe to their Youtube channel here: Mission Unstoppable
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.
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.
Guest Blog Post: Dr. Carla Alvarado was one of my interns in the International Training Program for Minority Students some years ago. Although I try to keep in touch with alumni of my programs, it is sometimes hard to keep track of where all of them are. Imagine my delight when I went to a meeting of the Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Research, and Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences,of which I am a member and saw that the only other Latina face in the room was that of my former student, Carla Alvarado, who is a superb program officer there. I am extremely proud of Carla, who after overcoming incredible odds, has risen to such a great career that brings together so many of her diverse personal and professional experiences.
Here is Carla's story in her own words.
Looking back at my growing up in the US-Mexico border, I feel fortunate that I have a bicultural and bilingual culture. I can say now that growing up in a predominantly Hispanic community did not prepare me for life as a “minority” once I stepped out of the Southwest. But I believe that life had a way of having me experience everything I need to in order to land exactly where I need to be.
Seeing the Health Care System as a Nurse in a Minority Community
Fortune continued to follow me as I graduated from a high school that was a magnet school for health professions, where I pursued a practical nursing degree. I earned a Bachelor’s in political science with a minor in economics, a master’s in public health with a focus on management, policy and community health, and international health. Then I worked for a local health department in Texas before pursuing a doctoral degree in public health policy. After all these twists and turns, I am currently a program officer at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in the Roundtable on Population Health Improvement.
During my nursing clinical rounds, I observed many patients in precarious conditions, both in terms of the state of their health and in their living conditions. I saw patients with multiple diseases, and I noticed that those without health insurance were treated differently and released as soon as possible and often, within days, you would see them back again at the hospital. Being in a region where 30% percent of the population was medically uninsured, I witnessed the impact lack of access to healthcare could have on people’s lives. I will never forget how people diagnosed with stage IV cancer were being sent home to die because they didn’t have health insurance and they were not eligible candidates for cancer trials. I saw families that were put under severe stress because of the financial strain of hospitalization. I started questioning the fairness of the health insurance system or lack thereof.
Seeing the Health Care System as a Brain Tumor Patient
As fate would have it, I lived first-hand the need for health care. A few weeks after I graduated from the nursing program, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor and I had to undergo surgery. The surgery and the 2-year treatment that followed made me realize how lucky it was that I had health insurance that would cover the majority of the expenses, to this day I do not know how my parents were able to cope with the out of pocket expenses (nor will they tell me).
After being a patient and interfacing with the good, the bad and the ugly of the health care system, I needed to understand why the U.S. health care system was the way it was. I decided to study political science (to my parents’ dismay), and was subsequently dissuaded from a philosophy minor (because they said I’d starve) and encouraged to purse economics, which I did (but as a minor). As I completed my bachelor’s degree, I didn’t know what exactly I wanted to do after college, I knew I wanted (and needed) a master’s degree, but in what? One night, after going dancing I was venting to a friend about not knowing my next step, and she told me about her friend pursuing a master’s degree in public health, which embarrassingly I knew nothing about (I know, not even as a former nurse). To my delight, public health married all three streams of knowledge I had attained throughout the years, and so I applied to grad schools for an MPH program.
Putting it All Together
During my MPH I had a variety of experiences that (in hindsight) made me a well- rounded public health student: I was involved in environmental health research, health disparities research, as well as policy and international research. It was tough being involved in so many projects, but I loved not only learning about the different sub-disciplines in public health but also having hands-on experience. So hands on, that as a student I was approached to become a consultant for a binational entity to conduct HIV-related qualitative research. Upon graduation, I secured a job at a local health department in Texas where, in the span of 3 years, I held 3 different positions: I was a health educator, a public health preparedness community liaison and a de facto special projects coordinator. During the H1N1 response (ten years ago!) I was the crisis and emergency risk communications lead and the preparedness community liaison, and let’s just say that the experience left me wondering how the federal and state governments made their policy decisions and why they were implemented the way they were. The experience was the push I needed to decide to pursue a PhD in public health policy. I always knew I wanted a PhD, as a personal exercise of intellectual endurance, and the experience at the health department helped me refine the topic I wanted to commit to for the next several years. Pursuing a PhD was the most gratifying experience I have had, it was a challenge and it was taxing, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
I wish someone would have told me to relax. Honestly. I wish someone had told me that yes, although it is important to be methodical about pursuing a degree (or several), the degrees give you (in the eyes of society as we know it) much more flexibility than people know. For example, I see people who graduated with a degree in public health who now work at the Department of Justice, friends who graduated with an urban planning degree working in public health, and other sorts of arrangements. I wish someone had told me that interdisciplinary experiences are also valuable and valued, being a generalist is also an area of expertise in public health. I wish someone would have mentioned that knowing about political science, economics, ethics, nursing, and public health would render a worthwhile portfolio of expertise, to hush all the people who pressured students to pick one thing and one thing only.
The path to the National Academies makes sense to me in hindsight. For starters, I graduated obtained a practical nursing degree in high school because my mother is a nurse and I thought that being a nurse was a pathway to becoming a doctor, as many of us children of immigrants are *encouraged* to become (note the euphemism).
I am very fortunate to have found a job that allows me to apply the knowledge and multitude of experiences to the various projects we work on and even affords me the ability to keep learning about the maturing field of population health.
Some of the biggest obstacles that I have faced have been of the interpersonal kind. Interacting with people who are not open to someone with a different background can be challenging. But overall, it has been an asset to be a bilingual (Spanish and English) Hispanic woman, with experience in the clinical field, the research and practice-based public health field, and in health services research. I can navigate in and out of many different areas, both professionally and personally. However, the ability to navigate different terrains means I have had to make in-roads into each, and that takes work and patience because you have to establish and exercise your agency. There have been many times, both professionally and personally, when any of the social categories I am part of has been used against me. No need to exemplify such unpleasantries, but (sadly) it took me a long time to learn that those who use them against you are taking out their frustrations, ignorance, bigotry, and inferiority complexes on you, as opposed to there being something wrong with being any of the categories you represent.
I love learning and traveling. Internships, especially those like the Mount Sinai Training Programs directed by Dr. Claudio, are so dear and near to me because they are professionally and personally intense, challenging, and rewarding all at the same time. Those internship experiences helped me put my career together.
The National Academies is a great place to work for people like me, it is a learning incubator if you will. I am given liberty to pursue intellectual and professional endeavors that are aligned with our mission. There are days where I am at professional conferences attending or chairing a session, there are others where I spend most of the day reading familiarizing myself with a new topic because we are organizing a workshop, yet other days involve providing technical assistance to our innovation collaboratives, supporting the roundtable, writing proceedings, doing research for one of our reports, etc., etc. I especially enjoy the range of activities I get to carry out. No week is the same, and that is very helpful in terms of the quality of life within the workplace. I am truly honored and thankful that I have a job where I get to interface with so many of the great experts in public and population health. I get to nerd out and learn something new every week, meeting and interacting with experts from around the nation and learn about their work. I do however miss data analysis, but that I can do as an extracurricular professional exercise.
I was once told that degrees do not mean anything, this was coming from a much older coworker at the health department who had been trained on the job and been working longer than I had been alive. To which I said, “maybe you should tell your daughter that, isn’t she the first one in your family to obtain a college degree and is now pursuing a master’s degree?” Back then I didn’t realize that out of almost 400 employees, only 5 of us had a master’s in public health, including the Director and the epidemiologist, and I was the youngest, the amount of work and responsibility was too much too soon in most people’s eyes and so they would hit below the belt. At the time I was distraught and confused about their animosity, but now all I can do is be thankful that my degrees have opened doors to a breadth of experiences that I never knew existed, and that they still do not, or ever will.
“What?! You want to interview me for a podcast about fashion?” I said on the phone, incredulously.
I continued, “Before I say you are crazy, maybe what you mean is that you want me to talk about the environmental impact of the fashion industry?” (This is something that I have written about in one of my most popular research papers, so that would make total sense.) “No,” said Misha Kaura, the fashion designer, and podcaster who was calling me on the phone. “I want to interview you about the role of fashion in your professional life.”
Until that moment, I had not consciously thought that fashion played much of a role in my career. Sure, I like to look nice and presentable, but that is a long leap from being fashiony.
Misha’s invitation made me think. Hmm… I guess fashion does play quite a role in my professional life. I did mention in my TED Talk that when I present about environmental health to girls, they also ask me about my clothes, shoes, or hair. This can get annoying, until you think about it from their perspective. I don't fit the media image of a scientist, so the girls are curious.
For the podcast, Misha asked me to talk about my career path and when fashion entered my consciousness. So I had to recall that my biggest role models were my aunts. You see, I grew up in the mountainous countryside on the island of Puerto Rico. My aunts were all professional women, 6 of them were secretaries. That they had these glamorous jobs was pretty rare at that time. And I wanted to grow up to look like them.
I remember that my aunts would walk down our unpaved road with their work shoes in hand. When they got to the bottom of the mountain where the paved road started, they would wash their feet and put their heels on to go to work in the nice offices in the city. To me, that was what a professional woman did.
Now that I am an environmental health scientist, some people have the idea that I work with trees and forests and wildlife. But in fact, I work in an office and lab in a big hospital in Manhattan.
Passion for fashion is important to me because many people think that a woman scientist doesn't really care about fashion. Why would we, right? We tend to wear lab coats and anyway, a woman who is brainy can’t possibly care much about her appearance. That's if you believe the media.
For me, the concept of fashion is aspirational and also inspirational. Aspirational because being a non-traditional female underrepresented minority scientist, I needed to break those stereotypes to be taken seriously. Therefore, I started dressing more like who I wanted to be, a professional. Like my aunts. Carrying my high heel shoes in my hand until I get to the paved road. Literally and figuratively.
Inspirational because, as I said in my TED Talk, when I talk to my students, especially young women and girls, it's really important to them to see somebody they would want to emulate. Now that I have a 12-year-old daughter I see more clearly how important this is to them. I want to say to girls and young women: "you can dress and look anyway you want and still be a kick-ass scientist. If you don’t fit the stereotypes, so be it."
I personally don’t have a lot of clothes, but what I do have I like. Last year, I joined the No New Clothes for a Year pledge. I made the year, buying only a pair of walking shoes and underwear, but cheated by having my friend, Martina Dietrich make me a dress for my TED Talk. I got the jewelry from my friend Jane Diaz.
So in the podcast I said that fashion style is not about having a ton of clothes or being trendy. It comes with getting to know yourself and being able to reflect that knowledge in your own style. Style comes from being able to wear clothes that make you feel in control, whether those clothes are the kind you see on the runways or the byways.
Yes, being a woman scientist has the advantage of forcing people to see your brain power rather than only being measured by superficialities. That must allow for all styles to be represented. Once I was wearing a classic Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dress at work, when a colleague sarcastically asked me "are you coming to the seminar or to a cocktail party". In fact, I was going to both!
Fashion style is about wearing and looking like who we are and who we want to be.
Listen to the podcast here: https://passionforfashionwithmishakaura.simplecast.com/episodes/misha-kaura-interviews-dr-luz-claudio-ArYr0Fco
Since graduate programs are very focused on a specific subject, they are best for students who are pretty certain of what discipline interests them most.
For an article published in US News and World Report, Ilana Kowarski asked several experts in higher education to explain what is graduate school. Students must weigh the decision to pursue graduate education very carefully and this article is intended to help in that regard.
One common misconception about graduate school is that it is similar to college, but higher education experts say that graduate courses tend to involve more self-directed learning than courses at the undergraduate level.
"Too often, college students or people who only have had a college experience somehow think that graduate school is going to be more of the same, and it's not," says Thomas Plante, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University in California. "It's going to look very different. So students might be tired of sitting in small plastic seats in large lecture halls and listening to professors drone on and then taking tests and things like that, and they don't realize that often graduate school is not that way at all."
Plante says graduate courses tend to involve small classes as opposed to large lectures, and he notes that grad students are typically engaged in academic research outside of the classroom.
In addition to Dr. Plante's comment, I was quoted as follows:
"Luz Claudio, a tenured professor with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, says graduate school typically requires an abundance of motivation and personal accountability, since students are frequently asked to work independently.
"I tell college students that one of the keys to success in graduate school is self-discipline," Claudio wrote in an email. "There's generally no 'homework,' quizzes and few exams. Students need to learn how to learn class materials without such close guidance from a teacher. However, most graduate programs have a long-term project that students must complete, such as a research paper. These require a different kind of relationship with a teacher. For these, the teacher becomes more like a mentor and the student is more like an apprentice."
To read more, go to US News & World Report.
Do you have a friend who once did a frog dissection and now acts as if they were a surgeon? Well, I don't want to be like that friend.
I have done one TED Talk. Therefore, I am no expert. I am still learning and exploring how I can incorporate that experience into other parts of my professional life. But since this is what you asked in the FAQs, then I will tell you the things I learned that helped me. Hope that they may help you next time you have to give a scary talk:
You know that warm and fuzzy feeling that you get when walking on a lovely beach at sunset?
Giving a TED Talk was NOT like that.
Giving a TED Talk was more like riding a roller coaster, when you are not a roller-coaster- type-of-person. It was the longest 6:54 minutes of my life. I felt every emotion: fear, excitement, despair, focus, distraction, nausea... then, just like riding a roller coaster, as soon as it was over, I wanted to do it all again.
To answer your second most frequently asked question (FAQ), here are some of the salient points of this experience:
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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.