Q&A with Public Health Student Erin Cleary
Erin Cleary is a current student at Baylor University, finishing her Master of Public Health (MPH) in Epidemiology, and she plans to begin a prestigious fellowship with the California Epidemiologic Investigation Service (EIS) after graduation. Erin lets us in on the Baylor Public Health program, her journey to epidemiology, and her unique interests in the field.
How did your undergraduate degree at Baylor prepare and push you into the Master of Public Health program?
I initially started out as a transfer student from Southern Maine Community College as a first-generation student. After I transferred to Baylor, I joined the Heath, Kinesiology, and Leisure degree program because it allowed for a lot of electives. I wanted the option of taking a variety of health-oriented classes because I knew I wanted to be in that space, even though I wasn’t sure what it would look like. I ended up taking a lot of public health classes through that degree path and fell in love with the field along the way. My undergrad epidemiology and global health courses solidified public health for me. I did research as an undergraduate with my global health professor and got more experience within the research side of public health as well. I thought, yes, this is absolutely for me.
Honestly, I wouldn’t be in my graduate program today without my undergraduate degree. The support from the First in Line Success Academy, a Baylor program for first generation students, and other programs for transfer students was extremely helpful. I’m incredibly grateful that Baylor offers them. When I transferred, I knew I was entering a lot of unknowns, but I felt supported the whole way. I felt like the people really cared about me, and I think that’s a great Baylor experience.
Tell us about the fellowship with the California Epidemiologic Investigation Services (EIS) and what you will be doing with them.
I was accepted into the California Epidemiologic Investigation Services (EIS) not too long ago. In this fellowship, I’ll be doing a lot of data collection. I’m not sure what topic I’ll be doing yet, but something involving data management and report writing along with policy brief writing as well. As far as the timeline goes, the fellowship will most likely be a year, and I’ll either review my contract with EIS or accept a permanent position, depending on the worksite and availability. It’s a great learning experience for someone coming out of an academic setting to get more real-life experience, and I’m excited to see what they have in store for me.
What has been the most beneficial part of your Public Health program?
I’ve really enjoyed my epidemiology classes, which should come as no surprise. I’ve really enjoyed diving deeper into the concepts in those classes. Also, I’ve really valued having the opportunity to work as a graduate practitioner at the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District as well. It’s great to have that outside experience on top of my academic performance– the position has been very beneficial to my resume. It’s been nice to learn from an actual epidemiologist in the field as well as the academia in my program and to see them both come together.
I would love to hear more about your interest in faith-based protective factors against disease. How has Baylor's program fostered your desire to pursue this interest?
In this master’s program, I had the opportunity to study the impact of COVID-19 on spiritual grace among US citizens. It was my first life project within the community health ministry field and from there, I was hooked on religion and health research. Community health ministry, religion, health, and their relation to chronic disease became my primary focus all throughout my master's degree and through undergrad.
Many people underestimate the power of the Lord, but also the social influence of the church. There have been a lot of studies showing that people who attend church or pray frequently have healthier outcomes. You hear of walking and nutrition programs that will actually take place in the church. You’ll find that they are very effective because of the social support that the church provides. When people are struggling mentally with something, they have people around them to pray about it, which in turn improves their mental and physical health.
Any advice to others pursuing a career in Public Health?
When you join a public health or master’s program, you’ll hear a lot about networking. Maintaining those connections are just as important as making them. I’ve found Public Health people to be very open-minded; they want to hear your ideas and your interests. My interests are very niche, like religion and health, but the professors have been very open to hearing them and working with me. You never know where those are going to be or what they could lead to. Don’t be afraid to reach out and be honest about what you want.