Student Profile: Abigail Bickford
Abigail Bickford is a PhD candidate in the Department of Behavioral and Community Health, with an interest in the intersection of social media and public health. She was first author of an article published in the January 2018 issue of Frontiers in Communications titled “Cleaner, Happier, Healthier: Sesame Workshop's Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Intervention among Low-Income Groups in Bangladesh and India.” The research documented the creation and roll-out of a new Sesame Street character who demonstrates proper hygiene and sanitation practices that are culturally appropriate for audiences in Bangladesh and India. Abigail did the data analysis for the project and pushed the paper through a lengthy revision process with the journal. “It was very lengthy, but really wonderful to be able to write a paper while in graduate school.”
In one sentence, what is public health to you?
To me, everything is public health! I have a very broad definition of the term because when you think about it, everything we do and everything around us, it all affects our health. In one of my classes Dr. Gold challenged us to come up with a topic that had nothing to do with health. We tried and tried, but we couldn't do it. I'm a big fan of the "This is Public Health" campaign by ASPPH because I think a lot of people feel like public health is a rather nebulous term and it's important to let others know about the many types of ongoing public health initiatives.
What inspired you to study public health?
I was previously a middle school science teacher in Baltimore City with Teach For America. My students had no health class and lots of questions. I left teaching and came to UMD with the intention of focusing on health education so that I could learn skills that would benefit future students. While my specific focus has changed, I still have the same goal of using what I learn in my program to improve the lives of others, including my former and future students.
What do you think is the biggest challenge that the public health field should be focusing on?
I think that the public health field is so vast that it is difficult to say that one challenge is more important or deserves more attention than another. One area that I am particularly interested in is increasing the public health workforce's training in and use of social media. Social media analytics is a largely untapped field and one where a great deal of information can be collected. Personally I am also really invested in involving public health in social movements and their shared fight for social justice.
Why did you choose public health at UMD?
UMD was within close proximity to where I live in Baltimore, but it also had a great reputation. I was initially drawn to the incredible research from the faculty but I was also thrilled to find out that the professors are also dedicated teachers as well. I wanted to go to a school that had a collaborative rather than competitive atmosphere, and I definitely found that at UMD!
Also, please tell me about the research you’re doing for your dissertation (the #blacklivesmatter resesarch).
Today everyone is familiar with the phrase "Black Lives Matter". The Black Lives Matter movement actually started online and continues to have a large presence through social media. The Black Lives Matter movement is bringing attention to issues of racial inequities and promoting social justice. Health equity and social justice are core tenets of public health, and therefore I believe that the Black Lives Matter movement should be viewed as a health-related social movement and examined with a public health lens. For my dissertation, I analyzed the content of over 10,000 tweets using #BlackLivesMatter to determine how the tweets map onto the stated mission and goals of the official Black Lives Matter organization and how these themes relate to health. The next part of this work will be to conduct a Delphi study with public health experts and leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement to determine how the public health workforce can best apply information collected from #BlackLivesMatter tweets to aid in addressing the health-related issues highlighted by the BLM movement. I also want to use this as a case study example to try to figure out how we can encourage the public health workforce to systematically engage with future health-related social movements.