Renée Nicolas is currently a first-year MPH student in the Department of Behavioral and Community Health. She is passionate about about the topic of drug use/abuse in addition to harm prevention, and currently works witht the non-profit organization HIPS where she assists with the syringe exchange program.

In one sentence, what is public health to you?

To me, public health is providing space for change so that people can live a healthy life with dignity and meaning.  

What inspired you to study public health?  

I grew up in a household that valued science and activism. At an early age, I became interested in microbiology but knew something was lacking. Late in my undergraduate career, I felt a need to move beyond the lab environment and connect with people in society. Public health is the perfect intersection of biology, people, and activism. 

What is your current employment or volunteer position?

HIPS is a non-profit, public health organization in Washington, DC that works with sex workers and drug users. For the past 23 years, HIPS has provided services using the harm reduction model for some of the most disadvantaged in the District. These services include a clothing closet, weekday lunch, group therapy, case management, syringe exchange and more. I began volunteering on the HIPS Mobile Outreach Van in September of 2012. During the evening shift from 11 pm – 5 am, we drive around the city, distributing safer sex supplies including condoms and lubricant and safer injection supplies like syringes, cookers, and ties. While applying to graduate school, I volunteered during the daytime outreach and organized several happy hour fundraisers across the District. 

What do you think is the biggest challenge that the public health field should be focusing on?

I believe the biggest challenge public health must address is the psychosocial development of our communities and the policies limiting our collective growth.

Why did you choose public health at UMD?

I graduated from the University of Maryland in May 2012 with a degree in Biology and wanted to return to be with my fellow Terps. Also, the School of Public Health is doing great work to address health disparities that affect many in our communities such as Washington, DC and Baltimore. I wanted a chance to be a part of that. 

What has been your favorite course taken as a public health student so far? Why?

Last fall a number of first-year students had mentioned an interest in learning more about data management and SPSS [a statistical software program used in health research]. Dr. Curbow was nice enough to set up and teach a course during the winter break. I enjoyed this three-week course because it put the research I look through everyday into context.

How has your degree program at UMD’s School of Public Health shaped your career goals?

The Public Health program here at Maryland has widened my career ambitions to include policy development as well as direct services with people struggling with substance dependence. I will take the knowledge I have gained to demand action be taken to support the most disenfranchised and marginalized people. 

What person or experience had the greatest impact on you during your degree program?

The Collegium of Scholars has been an amazing opportunity for me to engage with students, faculty and staff from across campus as well as other universities and communities. Watching scholars engage so passionately with one another has increased my drive and dedication to my field.