Q&A with SPHIS 2017 Alumna of the Year, Dr. Natasha DeJarnett

How did you feel when you found out you had been selected as the 2017 SPHIS Alumna of the Year?

I was amazed, honored, and shocked all in one breath. I was amazed that the school selected me from our pool of stellar grads, honored that the school deemed my accomplishments worthy, and shocked that the school chose me. I happened to be with my parents when I received the news, so we all found out at the same time as I read the email to them. After screaming with excitement, my mom immediately said, "That's huge," and Dad agreed, "It really is!" It truly made my heart smile to share that moment with them.

Over the following weeks, the gravity of the honor began to sink in more and more. My mind kept coming back to the scripture, "To whom much is given, much is required." That was actually the scripture my pastor preached from when I made the decision to pursue a PhD at SPHIS. I reflected back on all life's opportunities my parents had afforded me. Then, I reflected on how much UofL had already done for me in my MPH experience. By the fourth time he repeated the scripture, I realized that message was for me. Once again - years later, on the heels of receiving this honor, the same scripture kept running through my mind. That's when I realized that this award is more than an honor, but also a responsibility. Therefore, I accept the award as a charge - to be the very best alumna and representative of the University and SPHIS that I can be! To receive this award from my beloved school, where the faculty became my family and made such a positive difference in my life, truly means the world to me.

What would you say to get a student interested in the field of public health?

Do it! Do it now! Don't wait! Your future deeds will save lives and improve communities.

When I found public health, I found what I had been missing from my life! My only regret is that I hadn't found it sooner. One thing I love about public health is that it's less like a job field and more like a movement. There are so many fields within public health that I truly think there is something for everyone - informatics, statistics, law, urban planning, and so much more. In fact, there is no field that I can think of that is not affected by public health or effects public health. For interested students, I would let them know that no matter what career field they ultimately choose, a public health degree will make them a better professional in their future respective field. At the end of the day, health has to be the most important thing to us. No matter how much we value our faith, families and friends, and careers, we can't appreciate any of that or reach our full potential without good health. Public health professionals move us all toward good health.

How did you become interested in the field of public health?

I was pre-med in undergrad majoring in chemistry and biology. At some point, I began to feel a disconnect between myself and medicine. I knew I wanted to improve people's health, so I couldn't understand why I felt so disconnected from the only career field I had ever truly desired. Upon graduation, my mom, noting the crossroad in my life, suggested public health. Instead of following up on that great recommendation, I went to work in industry doing research and development for a few years. While I enjoyed the work, my desire to improve people's health persisted, so I volunteered in health-related activities on the side. During one of those volunteer activities, I met a woman with a PhD in public health who gave me a glimpse into the field. I really appreciated the emphasis on prevention. Then, I recalled my mom's wise recommendation, and one Google search later, the rest is history.

Explain your experience at SPHIS and how it has aided you in your career.

During my experience at SPHIS, I had to present to our faculty and staff several times a semester in either the EOHS Department Seminar or the Diabetes and Obesity Center Postdoc Meeting, assessing new papers or providing updates on my research projects. Faculty members and students would have the opportunity to ask questions about the information shared. This was intimidating for me because, if I wasn't thoroughly prepared, I may not be able to answer the tough questions, and it would be obvious and embarrassing. This experience taught me that preparation is key, and it helped me to better investigate and evaluate the science behind the research. I also learned to make presentations more interesting in both content and design. In my current role, I often get the opportunity to present to national audiences and utilize the presentation skills I gained in grad school. Honestly, I still get a little nervous before presenting, but through my lessons learned through my experiences at SPHIS, I am better prepared to answer audience questions with confidence.

When I was in UofL's Kentucky Public Health Association chapter, I organized our first Meet the Dean Night. The idea came about after hearing from students who wanted a better understanding of the school's future direction from the school's leadership. My KPHA colleagues and I were able to respond to this need by creating Meet the Dean Night where Dean Clover and faculty leaders were able to engage the students in dialogue. Hearing and responding to needs of stakeholders continues in my current work. I have had the pleasure of organizing stakeholder meetings to better understand the needs within specific sectors.

In my dissertation and postdoctoral research, I was liaison to a 20+ person team of researchers investigating the effect of common air pollution exposures and markers of cardiovascular disease risk. The team included experts in cardiology, biochemistry, physiology, toxicology, nursing, epidemiology, biostatistics, health geography, and environmental health. I had to learn how to communicate across all these different health sectors. That has been very helpful to guide my current work. I am now staff liaison to the National Environmental Health Partnership Council, which brings together about 25 senior and executive level environmental health leaders to address and define environmental health priorities.

Do you have a mentor? If so, please explain their role in your education and career path.

I am lucky to have had several people who provide mentoring and guidance in my education and career.

Dr. Robert Jacobs was my primary MPH advisor. He encouraged me to get a PhD. Prior to that, no one had ever before suggested it to me. It felt incredible to have a professor that had such confidence in my potential. While I was in in the PhD program, he picked-up on my interest in environmental policy and suggested that as a potential field for me. Now, I'm a policy analyst in environmental health.

Dr. David Tollerud was my primary advisor in the PhD program. We would meet in advance of our department seminars and dissect papers I had to present. During these exercises, he always challenged me in the area of critical thinking. He encouraged me to take courses in biochemistry and cell biology so that I could have a better understanding of the science that informs policy. Although I was hesitant (an understatement), the path he laid out for me served me well. In my current role, I assess and translate the newest research to inform scientifically sound environmental health policy and evidenced-based practice, and understanding the science behind the research makes me much better informed in these contributions.

Dr. Aruni Bhatnagar was my dissertation chair and my postdoctoral mentor. I appreciate that he trusted me early on, on a high profile project, and when I made mistakes (student always have teachable moments), he worked with me to identify solutions and prevent future blunders of the same nature. I learned so much through his example. For example, he would return from an offsite trip and come straight to work as soon as his flight landed, energized and ready to provide mentoring, guidance, and leadership as soon as he set foot in the door. I learned what type of commitment it takes to be a strong leader. Through Dr. Bhatnagar, I also learned that you can never prepare too much. I quickly discovered the benefit of having hidden slides in my presentations with alternate analysis scenarios. By the time I left the lab, I had more hidden slides than actual presentation slides in a given PowerPoint, and I always had to call on at least a few.

Last but not least, my parents are always my first go to people for professional and personal guidance. Their support and sacrifice have made so many opportunities possible, and minimized so many obstacles that could have impeded my progress. With their love, I know that the sky is the limit for me. My dad likely knows my dissertation as well as me, because he read it cover-to-cover at least 3 times - and provided helpful suggestions and feedback. In case you are wondering, no, he is not a public health expert. That type of love and support will allow me to reach the stars by improving the life and health of others!

What is your ideal job? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Ultimately, my ideal job will allow me to have a positive impact on quality of life and life expectancy by the protection of environmental health. My ideal job would also utilize my expertise in environmental health and embrace my quest for lifelong learning. It is one that welcomes my creativity in graphic design, allows me to mentor the next generation of environmental health professionals, and affords me the opportunity to make the tough but high-impact decisions.

In ten years, I would love to have a family. Career-wise, I would like to be in senior level leadership informing environmental health action.

In closing, what advice would you give to current public health students, especially those at SPHIS?

I love giving advice - maybe a little too much.

First, I'd let them know that they are already off to a great start! They have chosen an excellent university and a worthwhile field where they can truly make a difference! I'd tell them to be confident that they have already taken the most important step toward a bright future for themselves and their community.

Secondly, I recommend that they form study groups. I've heard this throughout my academic career, but I never really took it seriously until grad school. You see, I prefer independent study. However, having study groups really helped me excel in some of my tougher SPHIS courses. I found myself studying in advance of the group meetings so that I would be more informed for the group discussion. Meeting with the group gave me confidence that I understood the concepts when I could explain it to other group members. It was also very useful when I needed help comprehending tough material. In addition, it was a great way to get to know with my classmates.

Lastly, I encourage them to get involved with professional organizations. I highly recommend joining the American Public Health Association and the state affiliate, the Kentucky Public Health Association. During my first few years at SPHIS, classmates recommended that I attend APHA's Annual Meeting, but I didn't think I could afford it. In 2010, I was the recipient of a student travel award to attend APHA from the Environment Section, and SPHIS graciously matched those funds, covering my registration, membership, and hotel. It may sound cliché-ish, but attending that meeting changed my life. As a part of the Environment Section travel award, I was required to join one of their committees and volunteer during the meeting. I chose the Environmental Justice Topic Committee. It just so happened that they were hosting a roundtable forum on environmental justice, and all the student travel award recipients were to be roundtable moderators. What an exciting experience! The father of environmental justice was at my table! I met awesome people in my field that I had only read about in text books or seen their publications, but at the meeting, I got to learn about their experiences and better understand the people behind the papers. In addition, I got great exposure to all the many different careers within public health and realized that the reach of the field was far more vast than I could ever imagine. After my first APHA Annual Meeting, I vowed to return as often as possible, and now - long story short - I work for APHA, and I'm still a member.


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