Taking Public Health into My Own Hands

MPH student, Christopher Crowe with his daughters. Photo provided by Christopher Crowe.

Christopher Crowe

Master’s Student, Online Population and Health Sciences Degree Program

Christopher Crowe may live by the idiom "actions speak louder than words." He recently began his second year in the Population and Health Sciences master’s program online, while also earning a second degree in microbiology through the University of Florida, participating in research efforts as a student, and he's also managing the "new normal" at home as he cares for a pair of adolescent daughters.

Even though he’s got a lot on his plate now, he says that it’s worth it. His journey to public health hasn’t been a direct path, let alone a smooth one.

“About a decade ago, my wife was working as a Certified Nursing Assistant, while she was pregnant with my daughter, and she lost her job. I was in school working on a business degree at that time but the next semester I started having issues with my financial aid at the University of Tennessee. With all that going on, I ended up having to leave school for about five years.” Chris wanted to return to school throughout those years, but the finances didn't work out . 

Too often, if you're at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum, you do not get the same care as others because of income, race, or other factors. If you're not some ‘preferred’ group, you're not given access to the same level of care and I’d just like to be able to fix things like that.

“Later, I was able to finish my degree online but it cost me the better part of a decade to do it. That was time spent while on food stamps and being on Medicaid, which made everything even harder.” 

During this time, Christopher witnessed the disparities in care within his own community. That sparked his  interest in public health. He explains, “too often, if you're at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum, you do not get the same care as others because of income, race, or other factors. If you're not some ‘preferred’ group, you're not given access to the same level of care and I’d just like to be able to fix things like that.” 

During his family’s own times of hardship, he’s had first-hand contact with issues in public healthcare systems, “I’ve seen how in some places you’re un-served or underserved by the health system, how poorer care correlates with people’s different backgrounds, I’ve experienced it myself. I've had to go to the health department to get shots for my daughter, and I’ve waited in line for hours at a time for WIC appointments and things like that.”

Christopher is planning to use public health research to tackle the factors that lead to poor access and care. “If I can succeed in completing this MPH degree, then it's going to allow me to do many things in the future.” He sees a future where he can approach access and quality issues like these from the perspective of prevention to help other folks, sitting in those same waiting rooms, to get better care. 

Christopher is motivated by the positive impact he knows he'll make with this public health training, and he's motivated by his family. 

He says his girls think it’s exciting to watch him work and try to do their best to support their dad in his learning, “They love every bit of it. My daughter Kylee even sometimes tries to get on camera during my classes or when I'm meeting with my group on Zoom.” 

At 10 and 13 years-old, it’s understandable that getting to see their father’s hard work, watching him complete his degree from home, is making a bigger impact than he may realize. While the proud dad gushed over his daughters’ school performance and praised their efforts to find ways to occupy themselves when he needs to study, he recalls a poignant moment for him, “One time, my youngest Chloe, even came and sat in front of the next to me during one of my lecture videos, she was watching it with me and taking her own notes. They’re really with me in this.” 

This fall, he'll continue to balance life as a dad, husband, and student. His wife will be going into work at a local elementary school while he studies and helps his daughters with their remote learning. He relishes the role of being a public health mentor for his girls as well. In their Tennessee community, he says, “people generally aren’t listening as well as they should to orders to wear masks and social distance, many are simply acting as they normally do.” The lack of adherence has meant that his family has had to, once again, deal with issues accessing care from now overburdened medical services, sharing that his daughter alone has had three doctor’s appointments cancelled during this time.

The situation was one of the reasons he was eager to participate in a COVID-19-related research challenge with the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) this summer. From April to August, Christopher collaborated with four peers from the online MPH program to research and develop a team submission to the challenge. Connecting from around the country, the team proposed a unique smartphone app intended to help understand the current and future pandemic outbreaks as an optimized syndromic surveillance system network. His group made it into the top 10 finalists round of the NYAS Innovation Challenge. The competition included teams of students and professionals from across the world and was judged by leaders in public health, medical, pharmaceutical, and academia. 

In his MPH program, he plans to continue work like this while focusing on the biostatistics and epidemiology elective series. He hopes to gain the knowledge he needs to move forward in a PhD program, and eventually contribute to public health as a researcher.

Christopher says he enjoys the opportunity to do research and actually see the data, it’s one of the most important pieces in bettering public health, “in every single class that I've had has a section that includes statistics.” Biostatistics is also essential to make sure that the information we use to back up our decisions is solid he says, “It gives us the tools to really comprehend the data -- to understand the basics of what goes into these studies, researchers’ interpretations, what they’re trying to say -- studying biostatistics helps me understand that.”

I know how regular people experience some of these issues.

As he heads into his second year of the program, he looks back on what it’s changed for him personally. “In the beginning, I thought, ‘wow, these are all doctors or scientists and I'm not. I thought that I’d need to work twice as hard to be at the same level as people who already know some of this, but then I got into the work". He’s come to realize his value as somebody who's not already in the health field, “It’s all new to to me, I don’t have any real existing biases, except from what I have seen outside of the health system before having any of this knowledge - I know how regular people experience some of these issues.” Chris wants to use his ‘fresh eyes’ to try to understand and work with the existing public health and make it better.

But, surprisingly he says, one of the benefits of the program has also been getting him out of his shell a bit, “for me, since I'm not the most social person ever, it’s that I've been collaborating with my classmates a lot and working on assignments together.” He says that it’s nice to make those connections to help each other through the work; It’s a component he hadn’t anticipated in an online program and he’s glad it’s pushing him.