Venture Beyond the Clinic as a Public Health Researcher

In recent years, interest in careers that promote public health has grown. That’s good news when you consider how those in this field dedicate their lives to benefiting communities through education and the promotion of healthy lifestyles. Recently, we caught up with Debra Kozlowski, a public health researcher who has experience analyzing and developing programs that protect the health of individuals, families and communities in the United States and abroad. She shared what led her to this field, why she wishes she would have found it sooner and what you can do to enter it yourself. (EHC): Thanks for your time today, Debra! Let’s start at the very beginning. Many of our readers are just getting started exploring health care as a career option. How did you choose the health care path? 
Debra Kozlowski (DK): As a college freshman I wasn’t sure what major I wanted to pursue. I took a required English composition class over the summer with a terrific instructor. I researched and wrote a paper about the political motivations and lack of scientific evidence for abstinence-only sex education programs. After discussing my paper and goals for school, my instructor, whose partner was a nurse, suggested I explore the nursing field. The next semester I started taking the prerequisites for nursing school and an academic advisor suggested I volunteer at a local Federally Qualified Health Center. I spent two days a week for about three years at the clinic. At first, I checked in patients, scheduled appointments and filed charts. As I spent more time at the clinic I became a medical assistant. I took patients’ vital signs, ran laboratory tests, translated Spanish-speaking patients’ concerns to the clinicians and accompanied patients during potentially stressful or invasive procedures. I loved helping patients and the fast pace of the clinic.



EHC: Speaking of majors, what’s your educational background? 
DK: I have a B.S. in psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University — nursing school did not work out for me. And I have an MPH in global health from the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University.

EHC: There are so many different careers to explore in health care! How did you narrow down your options to public health specifically?
DK: I enjoyed the helping aspects of clinical health care, but after three years of clinical work with under-served psychiatric patients I was emotionally and professionally exhausted. While exploring other career options, I learned about the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps volunteer program. I loved the volunteer training course. It prepared me to participate in emergency response drills, community vaccination and STI clinics and health fairs. The training coordinator had her MPH and shared her personal experience in the field. Her guidance and the community volunteer events I participated in led me to apply to Public Health graduate programs.

EHC: What is your current title and what do you do?
DK: I am a research associate at a small research institute that creates and evaluates evidence-based bilingual public health programs to reduce health disparities experienced by Latinx communities in the United States. In this position, I conduct formative, feasibility and outcome evaluation research for programs implemented at the community level. Because we are a small institute I work on many aspects of our programs. I create proposals, protocols, data collection tools, participant recruitment strategies, program content and final stakeholder reports. I manage vendors, budgets and assistants for our projects. I attend conferences to present research findings and disseminate programs to the communities that use them.

EHC: Public health researcher seems to be less well known than some other types of careers in this field. How did you find yourself in this position? 
DK: I learned basic analytic and professional skills from my work as a clinical research coordinator. My supervisors provided ongoing training and mentoring to shape me into an accurate, efficient and thoughtful researcher. My interest in Latinx health disparities and the social determinants of health stems from my experiences traveling, studying and working abroad. I learned Spanish studying in Argentina as an undergraduate. In my Argentine classes and during the time I took to travel and explore South America, I learned about community transformation and community-based research methods rooted in Paolo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” These theoretical underpinnings are the foundation of the training programs I create today.

Additionally, as a part of my Master’s degree program I spent time working for a small maternal and child health care community-based nonprofit organization in rural Uganda. In Uganda I practiced community-based research and saw the incredible impact community health workers make on their neighbor’s lives. Today, I create programs that train, empower and support community health workers and promotores de salud fight against racial and ethnic health disparities.

EHC: What advice do you have for students interested in going into public health?
DK: Public health is a broad field of study and practice, it can be difficult to hone in on a specific area of interest. Consider how your personal strengths and interests may complement the different core competencies of public health. Strong analytic thinking is vital for success in bio statistics and epidemiology. A passion for social justice and health equity drives people to success in community health and health promotion work.

Consider which of the many career paths these areas of study may lead you. Public health training can lead to careers at local health departments, research centers at universities, private consulting groups, social justice-oriented community organizations or large charitable foundations. Reach out to a young public health professionals through school alumni associations, networking events or mutual contacts and ask them about their position. Informational interviews or just quick email exchanges can help you determine which career path may suit you best.

EHC: What do you wish you knew before you entered the public health field?
DK: I wish I’d known about public health sooner! I circled around public health work for years in clinical positions, but didn’t really know what public health entailed. Because the field is broad, it can seem nebulous from the outside. I was discouraged after I decided that clinical work wasn’t a good fit for me. It turned out that public health provides a great balance of research, community engagement and health care. Public health and clinical care complement one another, but are often siloed by their practitioners. I think the two fields can come together in higher education, community clinics and health policy to improve population health.

EHC: Finally, where should readers who are interested in public health go after they explore the information about it available on Are there any specific blogs that you follow, professional associations that you suggest students join or magazines to which you subscribe?
DK: The American Public Health Association (APHA) has special student membership offers, great newsletters, and mentorship opportunities. Similarly, but on a smaller scale, state Public Health associations are great resources. For newsworthy information I like the “Shots” blog from NPR. Meta Science is a great way to stay up to date on research and literature pertinent to your field. You can choose health topics and get notifications about new work. I  follow #thisispublichealth for events and resources across the country. They have great ideas for students to get engaged with public health campaigns.


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