False Starts, Plot Twists, Surprise Endings
The sometimes unpredictable roads that can lead to public health.
By the end of her nine-year career as a professional chef, Julia Wolfson had worked in three-star Michelin and top-rated Zagat restaurants. She could make foie gras torchons and shrimp-filled ravioli, sautŽ a dozen different fish dishes simultaneously, and butcher whole pigs, goats, and lambs. Scarcely preparation for a career in health policy, Wolfson admits—although the School of Public Health assistant professor concedes her sausage-making skills have probably contributed to her understanding of the policymaking process.
SPH is filled with people like Wolfson who set out on one career path but wound up on another. Assistant Professor Marisa Eisenberg thinks it has to do with the interdisciplinary nature of the field. "It's one of the things I love most about being at SPH—so many faculty and students who come from completely different areas."
For Wolfson—who exchanged her chef's toque for graduate degrees in public policy and public health, and now specializes in food policy, obesity, and diet-related disease prevention—the past and present are hopelessly, but fruitfully, linked. "When I look back," she says, "the seeds were always there. But I didn't see them at the time."
Wolfson still has dreams that she's standing in front of nine burners inside a Manhattan restaurant with 12 pieces of fish to prepare.
Marisa Eisenberg started out wanting to be an artist, turned to math and science in college "for fun," and now models infectious diseases at SPH. Like many of her colleagues in epidemiology, she loved math and made it a foundation of both her undergraduate and graduate studies. A postdoctoral fellowship in the National Science Foundation's Mathematical Biosciences Institute followed. But a trip to Haiti in 2011 changed her path, and Eisenberg "switched over," as she puts it, to public health.
Eisenberg had offered to help colleagues track the outbreak of cholera in Haiti. The experience opened her eyes. "I had been modeling math in several different contexts, but there had never been an opportunity where people were actually going to do something useful with it," she remembers. "I came away thinking maybe public health and epidemiology is where I want to be."
At one point, thinking he might want a career in biosolids management, Brouwer mucked manure in rural math New York.
Fellow SPH epidemiologist Andrew Brouwer tells a similar story. For years he struggled to reconcile his love of pure math with his desire to effect positive social change. At one point, thinking he might want a career in biosolids management, he mucked manure in rural New York. But math retained its grip. The light-bulb moment came around 2011 when Brouwer discovered the University of Michigan's program in interdisciplinary mathematics —one of the only programs of its kind in the country. Brouwer signed on for a PhD. Midway through his studies, he heard presentations by two SPH epidemiologists. Brouwer followed up with both and later joined them on studies of infectious-disease transmission. In November, he became a research investigator at SPH.
"I've found a place where my strengths can be applied for good," he says.
For Jon Zelner, who joined the SPH faculty this year, the route was even more winding. His undergraduate degree in sociology led to volunteer work with an AIDS service organization, which led to a flirtation with law school, graduate training in social work, and eventually a PhD in sociology at U-M, where he got interested in complex systems and established ties with the SPH epidemiology department. Zelner wound up doing his dissertation on infectious-disease transmission.
But the path afterward was no less meandering. Postdoctoral fellowships he thought were a shoo-in went to other applicants, while fellowships at Princeton and Columbia—long shots—came through. Meanwhile, he and his wife had their first child, and Zelner applied for tenure-track faculty posts. "Not a rip-roaring success," he notes wryly. But in January the stars aligned, and Zelner became an assistant professor of epidemiology with an appointment in the U-M Center for Social Epidemiology and Population Health, where he studies the social and environmental determinants of infection risk.
"Besides being just a little bullheaded and na•ve," he says of his serpentine career path, "I've been very, very lucky in terms of the mentors and collaborators and friends I've had. They've made all the difference."
Not everyone succeeds, of course. But that doesn't mean you should give up. Brouwer has friends who thought themselves failures because they hadn't found their "passion" as undergraduates. When you're in college, he says, "you haven't experienced enough. If you have that passion, great. But if not, it doesn't mean you're a failure."
Forks in the Road
When it comes to passion, Geila Rajaee has never wavered. At 35, the first-year MPH student in health behavior and health education admits to feeling old compared to her peers in the class- room, but she's also wise—the result of years of hands-on experience as a chaplain.
"I have earned my gray hair," she laughs.
A graduate of Princeton's Theological Seminary, Rajaee has worked in an inner-city level-one trauma center and at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (part of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center), where she counseled stem-cell transplant patients. She loved her work. "I can think of mornings where I would walk into a room, and someone would be openly distraught, and by end of our visit they were far more calm."
But eventually she wanted new challenges. Last September, Rajaee embarked on an MPH as one of eight nationwide recipients of a Transforming Chaplaincy Fellowship from the John Templeton Foundation. Rajaee hopes her SPH training will help her find "a way to better incorporate chaplaincy care into health care." As the daughter of a Christian mother and Muslim father, Rajaee is all about being cross-disciplinary. She believes chaplaincy—which she defines as "working within individuals' existential structures, whether it's inside or outside of organized religion"—can benefit health care in a range of ways, including financial.
The cross-fertilization of disciplines also drew Elizabeth King to public health. An assistant professor of health behavior and health education at SPH, King majored in psychology and Slavic languages and literature during college. Wanting to help address domestic violence and child abuse, she planned to get a PhD in psychology, coupled with a law degree, so she could advocate for a stronger "system." "But what system?" she kept asking herself.
Meanwhile, an undergraduate fellowship with a community organization introduced King to the concept of prevention, which in turn "opened my eyes toward thinking about public health." Her thinking deepened during several years in Russia, where King volunteered in a homeless shelter and worked on domestic violence issues while honing her knowledge of the country's language and culture. She came back to the US, got MPH and PhD degrees in public health, and now works on HIV prevention and treatment and gender-based violence, with a focus on Russia.
Not only is public health interdisciplinary, King says, but "the field itself keeps changing, which can shape careers. The more in-depth you go, the more you understand the complexity and layers of public health issues—not only the problems, but responses that are needed." The field is so dynamic, she believes—it can easily nudge a person from one area of specialization into another.
Rudy Richardson, the Dow Professor of Toxicology at SPH, says he can't imagine many people answering the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?" with "public health worker."
Richardson was headed toward a PhD in chemistry when a faculty member at Harvard's School of Public Health spotted his name on a list of chemistry undergraduate majors and invited Richardson to apply to Harvard's toxicology program. For a variety of reasons, Richardson instead decided to pursue a chemistry PhD at SUNY Stonybrook. But midway through his program, he pulled Harvard's letter out of his files and phoned the school to see if its offer still stood. It did, and Richardson's public health career was born. He suspects his story "is far from unique."
SPH Dean Martin Philbert, a toxicologist, once studied music at the Royal Academy of Music in London.
SPH Dean Martin Philbert, a toxicologist, once studied music at the Royal Academy of Music in London.
Thinking he wanted to pursue a career in psychology, Marc Zimmerman did a stint as a fellow for a congressional agency before realizing "my training and world view fit in public health."
Mike Boehnke loved math but knew early on that a career in pure mathematics "was not for me." He toyed with going to law school, was active in Oregon state politics, volunteered in an ecology lab, and spent a semester in Germany on a Fulbright before a colleague suggested he go for a doctorate in mathematical biology.
"I haven't had a class in biology since the seventh grade," Boehnke said.
"Who cares?" his colleague countered. Thirty-five years later, Boehnke, the Richard G. Cornell Distinguished University Professor of Biostatistics at SPH, is piloting groundbreaking research in the genetic underpinnings of complex diseases.
The Right Fit
As an undergraduate, Aisha Langford flirted with medical school but so hated her huge biology and chemistry classes that she majored in English instead. After graduation, she worked at a PR agency in Manhattan and an adult-literacy organization in California, but still hankered to do something related to health. Out of the blue, a friend from church suggested she consider public health.
"What's public health?" Langford asked.
Today Langford holds an MPH from Saint Louis University and a PhD ('13) from Michigan and is an assistant professor of population health at the New York University School of Medicine. Her research explores how health communications affect medical decision-making. In her spare time, she does freelance writing for publications like iPhone Life magazine and Inside Higher Ed.
In some ways, Langford says, she's gone "back to where I started." The undergrad who dreamt of medical school is now working in one. Her advice to undergraduates who are worried about their futures? "I would just say, relax, it's going to be OK."
Today, nearly two decades after quitting college, Metz is about to complete her first year of graduate school.
It's a lesson Liza Metz learned years ago. The first-year student in nutritional sciences at SPH quit college after her freshman year, because she wasn't ready. She came home to Ann Arbor and worked at the Campus Inn, where she waited on luminaries like Gerald Ford and Madeleine Albright. "I thought this was it," she says.
But after five years on the job, she saw that low- to medium-skilled service jobs were not for her, and she enrolled in Wayne State University as a history major. "This time, college worked," she says, "at least to get me over the finish line." After graduation, Metz continued to work in food service, slowly realizingthat's where she belonged—in the food business, but as a registered dietitian. Today, nearly two decades after quitting college, she's about to complete her first year of graduate school. "It feels more and more the right choice," she says.
Looking back, Metz wishes she'd taken things more seriously earlier in her career. "But I also know that it's not a straight line for anybody. Even people who are very successful have stumbled along the way—a direct trajectory is sort of a Hollywood notion."
Few know this better than fellow SPHer Julia Wolfson, who also went from a career in the food industry to one in public health. For Wolfson, as for countless others, the old life fuels the new—even if the old life never fully goes away. Wolfson still has dreams that she's standing in front of nine burners inside a Manhattan restaurant with 12 pieces of fish to prepare. And when that happens, she says, she's got a sure-fire antidote. "I make a big multi-course dinner."