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Building a Career in Public Health

Public health is a field that spans many areas, from disease prevention, outbreak control, and health promotion to epidemiology, environmental health, health care, health policy, and even bioterrorism. Public health professionals play a critical role in monitoring a population's health, controlling disease, and fostering policies to improve and promote health and health services. These individuals generally find work at government health agencies such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, global nonprofit organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, educational institutions and academic centres, and hospitals. Many also join management consulting firms that specialize in health care delivery.

Most public health students are fresh from university, and many are motivated individuals who already have an interest in various aspects of public health: health promotion, chronic or infectious disease, epidemiology, biostatistics, and international health. The field does also attract mid-career professionals, mostly from the medical field. Many public health graduates go on to medical school, and some go on to become research scientists.

A Different Way of Getting Started

My own entry into the field of public health was quite atypical and didn't occur until late into my graduate studies. When I was a college science major in India, I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in science, but exactly what form my career in science would take was still an unknown.

It was my interest in biochemistry research that led me to Yale University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Toward the end of my Ph.D., I realised that although I enjoyed being a scientist, I was much more interested in the application of science to public health and the environment than in basic science. My interactions with some professors in the School of Epidemiology and Public Health convinced me to pursue a master's degree in public health. I specialised in international health, and during an internship with the Voluntary Health Association of India, I acquired some valuable experience studying the impact of the World Trade Organization's Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) on the pharmaceutical industry and public health in India.

I continued working at the interface of science and epidemiology, first with Genaissance Pharmaceuticals, a New Haven-based pharmacogenomics company, where I was involved in the fascinating study of human genetic variation and population genetics. Following that, I joined Celera's proteomics initiative, which was trying to unravel the complex proteomic signatures in human cancers. Although I enjoyed the work at Celera, it became clear to me that I was drifting back into the world of pure science and further away from public health and public policy.

Based in the Washington, D.C., area, I was naturally drawn into the world of science as it relates to public policy. I began to attend talks and workshops and to network with people in the field--for example at the National Academy of Sciences; the Center for Science, Policy and Outcomes; the Union of Concerned Scientists; and the RAND Corporation. Gradually, I began to gather what the field was about and realised that not only was I very interested in science policy, but I also had an ideal set of skills and experience to pursue a career in the field.

Want to find out more about careers in science policy?

Next Wave's Careers in Science Policy feature is an excellent place to start. There are 22 feature articles devoted to reasons for entering the science policy arena, ways to make the transition, and career opportunities, plus, of course, many resources to assist your search.

Feeling confident about my prospects, I launched a serious search for jobs in the field. I approached foundations, non-government organizations (NGOs), think tanks, and academic centres through the network I had developed. A number of possibilities presented themselves as a result of this strategy, and in January 2003, based on a recommendation from a professor and good friend at Harvard, I accepted a position as postdoctoral research associate at the University of Toronto's Joint Centre for Bioethics. I was specifically interested in its Genomics and Global Health program, which had a global focus on genomics and biotechnology.

International Projects and Publications

Although I was at a bioethics research centre, my own work was in the field of science policy. My first responsibility was to lead the research, analysis, and writing of a report for the United Nations Millennium Project's Science and Technology Task Force. The report explored the potential of biotechnology solutions to the U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of development goals (such as halving child mortality) for all developing countries to reach by 2015. The report is now in the process of being refined before its presentation to the Science and Technology Task Force. In the meantime, I had the opportunity to boost my publication record by writing a commentary article for Nature Genetics on the potential applications of biotechnology to the MDGs.

Another exciting project I worked on, for which my set of qualifications and experiences was ideal, was identifying the Grand Challenges in Global Health, a $200 million initiative by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to address the specific scientific roadblocks to better global health. In May 2003, the executive committee, led by Harold Varmus, Rick Klausner, and Elias Zerhouni, announced a call for ideas from scientists around the world. My responsibility, as a Ph.D. scientist, was to screen the 1000-plus ideas that came in over 3 months, summarize and categorize the information, and provide it to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, which coordinated the overall project. This project was a wonderful opportunity to learn about some of the most cutting-edge ideas in science. In October 2003, toward the end of the project, the executive committee and the University of Toronto team also published a Policy Forum article in Science.

My work at the Joint Centre for Bioethics has provided me with tremendous opportunities. I was able to move smoothly from science to policy, while at the same time using my experience in the biotechnology industry as well as my educational qualifications in science and public health. Perhaps the best outcome has been the chance to explore the field of science policy and gain in-depth experience and contacts.

Through my experiences, it has become clear to me how closely intertwined science, medicine, and public health really are. From what I gather, there is little interaction between these fields, and working in isolation can hold back progress. If more scientists get involved in public health, both science and public health can reap the benefits.