From CDC to MPH: Real-World Work Inspires Desire for Greater Impact

Nathan Clayton, online MPH student

Nathan Clayton

Master’s Student, Online Population and Health Sciences Degree Program; Public Health Analyst, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

In 2015, West Africa was in the midst of an Ebola epidemic. The widespread outbreak had the world on alert while health organizations intensely monitored its spread and attempted to prevent the virus from entering other areas of the globe. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recruiting new personnel to help manage surveillance and prevent the outbreak from spreading. Enter Nathan Clayton, who joined the CDC fresh out of his undergraduate studies from the University of Georgia. It wasn’t long before he fell in love with the important work he was assigned to, and he decided this was the field he wanted to stick with.

His work with the West African Ebola outbreak significantly influenced his outlook on health. “When the pandemic occurred, I learned so much about border health and I was part of this historic response—it was exciting and interesting. That was when I really fell in love with the public health mission,” he says. 

I got to be a part of a global event: you saw it all over the news, and I was in the middle of it, helping to stop it.

Seeing the great significance of his work transformed the way he viewed himself as a public health professional, “the Ebola outbreak was the catalyst in my path in public health. Getting to be a part of that expanded my ideas about health work. I got to be a part of a global event: you saw it all over the news, and I was in the middle of it, helping to stop it. I like what I do because it feels good to be a part of something bigger than you are.”

Nathan has now been a contractor with the organization for the past five years as a Public Health Analyst in the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine. Every day he works to prevent the introduction and transmission of infectious diseases at US ports of entry. Though he was interested in health in college, fighting outbreaks is not exactly the job he thought he’d end up in, “I wasn’t really paying attention to this type of health at first. I was actually more interested in mental health and that’s what I thought I would kind of go into.” 

“The opportunity for the position at the CDC kind of came out of nowhere, I was doing work with the Army Reserve and found out about the position. They needed people to help with the Ebola outbreak and the skills I had developed simply met the job needs, so I went for it.” Nathan’s position at the CDC includes development of disease response plans for managing public health readiness at US ports of entry during these types of disease outbreaks. He and his team support the screening of high-risk individuals as they’re entering the country. They manage in-airport quarantine facilities for those displaying symptoms and ensure those people get them to the appropriate treatment and care facilities to mitigate further transmission. 

More recently, Nathan and his team have also worked on surveillance and containment for Zika spread in the last few years and are now supporting the efforts against the spread of the advancing coronavirus disease (COVID-19). 

For those interested in public health, getting to work at the CDC in this capacity may be ‘the ultimate goal’. But as a self-proclaimed life-long learner Nathan isn’t prepared to finish striving for self-improvement. This year, he began pursuing his master's of public health degree, taking advantage of the online Population and Health Sciences program at the University of Michigan School of Public Health to allow him to continue his role at the CDC while working toward his next steps in the field of public health. 

I’ve dealt with things like disease spread and containment in real-life - being able to bring that experience to what I’m learning makes it all the more engaging

In addition to his role as a CDC analyst, Nathan also serves as a First Lieutenant in the Army Reserve. He has been able to accumulate a myriad of experience in his roles that offers him valuable context for his master’s work. “I’ve been able to get this great real-world experience from the work I’ve done before I started my MPH classes—I’ve dealt with things like disease spread and containment in real-life—being able to bring that experience to what I’m learning makes it all the more engaging and allows me to better conceptualize complex public health issues.” 

“Right now I get to do a lot of hands-on work in my job, but I really miss the academic parts of health sciences. I just enjoy learning. I think, in the future, I see myself going back to the academic world fully and becoming a professor. I see this degree as helping me progress toward possibly pursuing a PhD,” says Nathan. 

Returning to school has not been just a means to the next step though, earning his master’s has helped him explore the field in ways he didn’t consider before, “I really thought I would be most focused on epidemiology when I started the program because it’s really what I focus on in my day-to-day. But I’ve really found myself enjoying areas like health management and policy. Learning more about how policy is done has been eye opening for me. I’ve developed an interest in how health policy works and getting a better understanding of that. In that way, I see my program giving me a holistic approach to what I’m doing, really understanding all the areas of public health to be able to apply to what I’m doing in my work now.” 

Nathan’s choice to further his education meant making a commitment on top of his career, but it’s one that he is able to reap the benefits of even before he’s neared graduation, “For me, doing a program online was something that I needed because I couldn’t take time off from my job to do classes. I needed to be able to do it on my own time. Participating in the online master’s program is giving me the understanding and knowledge to progress in my current position and possibly move into different areas of the CDC.”