Blog Global Health Center

Finding my footing in public health

Written by Rida Qureshi, BS candidate at Washington University in St. Louis and participant in the 2022 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program

The author giving a mock news conference at the CDC HQ in 2019

Looking back at my time in the Institute of Public Health Summer Research Program – Public & Global Health Track, I cannot help but think of every little decision that led me to public health. In truth, it’s a miracle I found this field at all — as a first-generation, low-income college student, I had been taught that if I enjoyed healthcare, the only viable career option available was medicine. Though I enjoyed learning about the human body and its chemistry, I loved the humanities more – but the demands of natural science coursework kept me from pursuing passions like international politics and social justice. When I applied to summer camp at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2019, I had assumed I would learn about how to treat an infection, or what a virology laboratory looks like. Instead, I heard the words “public health” for the very first time, and I realized that I could impact whole populations’ lives at the intersection of healthcare and the humanities. Convincing my father that public health could be a wonderful, stable career option for me took time, but when he finally came around – in part due to a certain global public health crisis – he could not have been more supportive.

Today, I sit on Zoom alongside a cohort of future public health heroes – students from around the globe, all dedicated to empowering voices that have been marginalized by poor health infrastructure. I have enjoyed every speaker that has shared their research over the course of the program, but my favorite Zoom session by far was our Mid-Program Presentations, where I had the chance to see my fellow cohort members’ hard work. Every project produced by this program has the potential to change hundreds of lives, and I am so grateful to be surrounded by such empathetic changemakers.

Nonetheless, for the first month of the program, I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of imposter syndrome. As one of the youngest members in the program, I convinced myself I was unprepared to tackle my own research project – I had barely even started my Anthropology major. As I buried myself in background research, I began to panic, and had it not been for my mentorship team, I would have crumbled under the pressure. My mentor, Matthew Ellis, PhD, walked me through every step of the research process, and whenever I doubted my data or myself, he would remind me to pause, breathe, and trust that even if my results were inconclusive, they would point future researchers in the right direction. Learning statistical analysis from scratch also seemed like an insurmountable task, but thanks to Ellis’s encouragement and his lead statistician Zac Kasper’s patience and guidance, I start every day of research excited to dive into a massive dataset.

Ten years from now, I see myself back at CDC Headquarters – not as a camper, but as an employee, working alongside passionate public health officials. And thanks to this Summer Research Program, I will know, with complete certainty, that I belong there.