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Find your ikigai-- Q&A with SPHIS alumna, Dr. Nida Ali

Name: Nida Ali, PhD, MPH
Degree: PhD in Public Health with a specialization in Health Promotion & Behavioral Sciences
Graduation Date: May 2017
Title: Health Scientist
Employer: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Overdose Prevention

What sparked your interest in the field of public health?

Growing up, I had always wanted to be part of a helping profession. When I was pursuing my undergraduate degree, I started taking several gender and health courses which introduced me to a different way of thinking about health. As I began to learn more about public health and started my MPH coursework, I found the interdisciplinary, versatile, and collaborative nature of the field incredibly appealing. What I found particularly exciting about public health is the opportunities to engage people from different disciplines to uncover the root causes of complex problems and find practical solutions.

Why UofL SPHIS?

During the second year of my MPH program at Texas A&M University, I began seeking out doctoral programs and professors who I was keen on working with/learning from, particularly as it related to health equity, community-based participatory research, community capacity building, and health policy.  In this process, I learned about Dr. Monica Wendel and the community work she was leading at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health. I had an opportunity to meet with her while I was a graduate student and learned that she was moving to Louisville to pursue new opportunities as the associate director of Public Health Practice at SPHIS. She spoke about some extremely exciting opportunities and encouraged me to apply to the doctoral program and join her at UofL.

I found SPHIS appealing because I would work directly with and learn from Dr. Wendel and other faculty whose research interests aligned well with what I wanted to pursue. I was also particularly impressed by, and drawn to, the opportunities around social justice, community engagement, and health equity in Louisville.

Post-graduation

After graduation, I completed an evaluation fellowship at the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) where I served as an evaluation officer providing technical assistance to state health departments on opioid overdose prevention efforts.

I was also a postdoctoral research associate for the school’s Commonwealth Institute of Kentucky (CIK) where I continued my work with the Youth Violence Prevention Research Center (YVPRC) and focused on improving health literacy in West Louisville with community members. I take great pride in the work we have accomplished through both centers and often find myself drawing on these experiences. Since the YVPRC received CDC funding, it has has allowed me to bring perspectives in my current position at CDC that help me better relate to recipients and understand how programs are implemented on the ground. In fact, this experience has strengthened my commitment to ensuring that state and local partners have the support, knowledge, tools, and resources needed to succeed in their efforts. Leveraging my community-based participatory research training and background, I am able to integrate engaging, inclusive approaches to my technical assistance practices, empowering recipients, building capacity, and ultimately better serving those working on the ground.

Professional experience at the CDC

My degree and complementary learning experiences have significantly shaped my career into what it is today. My training in the doctoral program allowed me to ground myself in the fundamentals of public health, health equity, program evaluation, and community engagement, allowing me to explore areas of study that were of interest to me. I had the opportunity to learn and experience first-hand how public health leverages various disciplines and skillsets. My professors, classmates, and colleagues have all inspired and challenged me. These experiences have allowed me to strengthen my critical thinking and project management skills and pair that with my passion to work with communities to build capacity and uncover the root causes of complex problems. Additionally, my training in quantitative and qualitative methods has positioned me well as a mixed-methods researcher in my current role at the CDC.

Due to the complex and evolving nature of the drug overdose epidemic, no one day is the same as a health scientist. Generally, I spend most of my time providing evaluation and scientific expertise to funded state and local health departments, conducting applied research with colleagues, and building scientific evidence to support state, community, and tribal efforts to address the epidemic. I also collaborate with internal and external colleagues to design and conduct program evaluations and other scientific research studies in the area of overdose prevention.

Currently, I am serving as a subject matter expert helping to guide and shape a cross-site evaluation of CDC’s Overdose Data to Action cooperative agreement. Additionally, I am a member of the newly formed drug overdose health equity workgroup working with colleagues to identify emerging health equity-oriented approaches for preventing and reducing the harms of stigma and informing responses to drug overdoses.  

Find your ikigai -- advice to public health students and recent graduates

Your career can take you in many different directions, so be open to any and all opportunities. You do not have to know everything, and your interests can change.  Find your ikigai (life purpose). Integrate reflection into your routine practice so you can identify your strengths, areas of interest, and areas for growth and improvement. Leverage opportunities to network with others and embrace the growth mindset of a lifelong learner. The field is dynamic, and we are in constant search of sustainable solutions, so tap into opportunities for innovation, take the time to learn from others, and share your own knowledge, ideas, and insights with others.

  • Enjoy your journey
  • Take care of yourself
  • Don’t be afraid to cross disciplines—public health is a part of everything
  • Be open to learning and new experiences
  • Take initiative and be proactive
  • Embrace setbacks—they provide opportunities for reflection and may teach you valuable life lessons
  • Welcome friendships and take some time to learn about others and their experiences
  • Don’t be afraid of going to faculty office hours and taking the time to get to know your professors
  • Take risks early and often
  • At the end of the day, you will get out of your experience what you put into it.

Connect with Nida on LinkedIn.

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