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Student Profile: Shifali Mathews, MPH '21

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Shifali Mathews

BS, Public Health Science and Master of Public Health, Environmental Health Sciences

Shifali Mathews was part of the first class of students in the accelerated BS/MPH program. She completed her bachelor's in public health science in 2020 and will complete her MPH in 2021. She is conducting climate change and health research with Dr. Amir Sapkota. One project from that role has been studying the impact of changing monsoon patterns on diarrheal disease incidence in South Asia. Another project is with the Public Health Extreme Weather Events and Resilience (HWR) sub-group for Frederick County, MD, where she is helping to develop recommendations for climate adaptation. Additionally, Mathews serves as a teaching assistant for the undergraduate course SPHL100: Foundations of Public Health. 

In one sentence, what is public health to you?

Public health to me is the social determinants of health and realizing that it’s not just on the surface level. It’s not like maybe a medical diagnosis but a lot of outside factors in our lives that shape our health or individual health. It’s working on a systemic level to promote health for all and to prevent negative health outcomes, especially for socially vulnerable populations. 

What inspired you to study public health?

I think what inspires me is all of the new research that’s out there. You wouldn’t even realize some factors that impact public health. There’s really some dynamic research going on within the School of Public Health at UMD that many researchers are collaborating on. It just kind of opens your eyes to whether that’s injustices or even small systemic changes that make the world of difference in someone’s life or larger population.

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

Working with Dr. Amir Sapkota has inspired me. I’m in his lab group that’s focused on climate change in health, which is my main research interest and career interest for the future. I've had the opportunity to work on multiple projects with him, and he’s really encouraging. It’s not just looking for the research that I have to gather, but he also wants me to be well rounded within public health. That includes encouraging students to take certain types of classes and for research, making sure that it aligns with my interests and goals. 

Helping guide me into a capstone project is another thing that he’s done. The project is ahead of time when I will have to take the capstone credits, but he’s been working with me to develop that and refine that ahead of time so that I have ample time to work on it since the project is pretty long term. Dr. Sapkota has been following up with me every week, and that has been helpful. 

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

My concentration is Environmental Health Sciences within the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health (MIAEH), and just having that close-knit community has been helpful for me because I get to see firsthand, whether that's one on one meetings or listening in on their weekly seminars, not just what research is being done but what work is out there. It inspires me every day. Also, with taking some of the concentration courses, I get to see what I like within environmental health and narrow my focus that way. And just with the program, I know we will have to do an internship. I haven't done it yet, but I think that's a great way to be in the field and work and know what you want from a career. They encourage you to think about those things ahead of time too within the program. 

There are a lot of opportunities within SPH and within MIAEH for me to explore. I think that having that freedom and just all those opportunities to engage with faculty and outside research events have been helpful like when we were in person, I remember we would have guest speakers and things. Even within classes, having a project-based focus, whether that’s papers or other types of projects. I think having that interactive or hands-on experience has helped too. 

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

I think it’s climate change in health. You would think that it just impacts one’s environment. It does, but it also impacts so many other things, whether it’s the air we breathe or the water we drink. Even our mental health and where we live will be impacted in the future, and it’s already being impacted now. With climate change, we’re seeing more intense, frequent and extreme weather events. I feel like that’s just really impacting everyone’s health. It will start with vulnerable populations and potentially expand if we’re not tending to the needs of our socially vulnerable populations. Then, what are we as a society? Climate change in health is overarching, and it does impact so many aspects of people’s lives, which is why we really need to speed up our work on it and focus more on it. 

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  • Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health
  • Public Health Science
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