What are your career goals?

Written by Swetha Nakshatri, undergraduate student at Washington University in St. Louis and participant in the Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program

What are your career goals? The most daunting of questions, with your answer not only exposing your goals, but also your interests, ambition, and core values.

It’s always a question that I’ve stumbled on, not because I was unsure of my goals, but because I was uncertain of how to get there. So I’ve always said “doctor” – nothing more, nothing less. Being a doctor has a concrete path, less insecurity, and societal approval. However, this summer, I’ve spent time around numerous doctors and public health professionals who have taught me that the answer isn’t that simple. They’ve taught me that your career path is one that you can and should tailor to your interests and that public health is all about being interdisciplinary and diving into discovery, both of health, and of yourself.

One of my points of discovery was in the laboratory. I worked in the lab of Dr. Jeffrey Gordon, exploring the relationship between the human gut microbiota and childhood malnutrition. I focused on a bacterial strain that colonizes the infant gut and has an important role in processing breast milk, contributing to growth, and protecting against pathogens. When you spend a day in the lab, sometimes remembering the global health relevance of your work can be difficult. This is why I’ve previously been hesitant of a lab-focused career, afraid that it would take me away from the human connection I’ve always coveted in a public health career. This is the summer that a future in the lab has become more and more real to me. To be able to ground my work in a global health problem like malnutrition and in a specific patient population has been invaluable. I’ve spent as much time thinking about lab work as I have spent thinking about its implications for intended populations. I’ve more concretely realized that a career in the lab can be a career in public health. The ability to make these connections has made me reappraise my career goals and has made me more perceptive about the intersections of my interests.

The Institute for Public Health seminar series has allowed me to hear from doctors of all kinds, from those focused on HIV to those fighting MRSA in households. I’ve heard from people with expertise in fashion, opioids, and antibiotics. But despite these diverse career paths, they’re all still committed to public health. This program has exposed me to a world of options, a world where your job description doesn’t have to stop at your clinical subspecialty. Public health is not only about the doctor’s office or the lab bench. It’s about combating the opioid crisis by advocating for Narcan in communities. It’s about making sure that hospitals are running as efficiently as possible. It’s about ensuring that precision medicine isn’t only available to the wealthy. For me, hearing about these passions and life goals has made me more unsure about my career path than ever. But I also know that public health is 100% for me and that my options are many. And for that, I could not be more grateful to this program.

My future will probably be in the laboratory or at the hospital, but it will also be in communities. It may even be something I haven’t been exposed to yet. But thanks to the Institute for Public Health summer research program, I’m open to these possibilities.