Unnati Mehta

What was your major and what year did you graduate?

I graduated from UMD in 2016 with a BS in Community Health. I completed a minor in International Development and Conflict Management and was also part of the Gemstone Honors Research Program in the UMD Honors College. My Gemstone team’s research focused on assessing the impact of intranasal administration of thiazolidinediones (TZD), a class of diabetes drugs, on Alzheimer’s disease pathology using a mouse model.

In one sentence, what is public health to you?

For me, public health is a uniquely interdisciplinary field characterized by creating widespread change through the systematic union of health research and subsequent community intervention; successful public health initiatives involve effective collaborations between researchers, policy makers, community health workers, and target populations.  

What inspired you to study public health?

My parents are both climate scientists, so I have been exposed to research from a young age. As I grew up, my personal journey with allergies and asthma fueled my curiosity about human health and how it is impacted by ever-changing environmental and social determinants of health. In addition, I have always wanted to use my work to impact vulnerable subpopulations. Pursuing a career in public health allows me to focus on communities rather than only individuals. I am specifically studying environmental epidemiology as it is a reflection of all of my interests and experiences that have inspired me to pursue a career in public health research.

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

It is difficult to identify just one substantive area of focus because there are so many important issues. Speaking generally, as a researcher, I feel that it is important to ensure that research is conducted with the intention of directly informing policy or designing targeted interventions. Whether this means developing and applying new analytical methods, creating more interdisciplinary projects, making sure researchers are involved in the data collection and intervention implementation processes, or encouraging public health and medical professionals to take public office, all public health professionals should work towards proactively creating change at all levels, from the grassroots to the government.

Why did you choose public health at UMD?

I have always been interested in studying health not only at the individual level, but also at the population level. As a student still finding her specific passion under the vast umbrella of health, I was able to explore a wide range of substantive and methodological topics as a part of the School of Public Health at UMD (UMD-SPH). Additionally, the application opportunities that UMD-SPH offered through courses and networking helped reinforce my passion for public health research and project implementation. 

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

The major in Community Health provided an excellent overview of the various dimensions of public health. Studying hard sciences, health education and outreach, biostatistics, epidemiology, and research methods through my coursework exposed me to the plethora of career options available within public health. The degree program culminated in a semester-long practicum as an ORISE Fellow in the Office of Clinical Pharmacology at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which solidified my interest in epidemiology and biostatistics. This became the primary force that pushed me to earn a Master of Public Health degree in Epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. After graduating with an MPH in May 2018, I will be traveling to India for the 2018-2019 year on a Fulbright-Nehru Research Award to conduct an epidemiological analysis of the impacts of air pollution on respiratory health in New Delhi. Upon my return in 2019, I will begin my doctoral studies at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health in the Department of Environmental Health, focusing primarily on exposure assessment and environmental epidemiology.

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

The practicum experience proved to be a crucial experience for me during my degree program. As an ORISE Fellow at the U.S. FDA, I performed intense data analysis using R and was exposed for the first time to epidemiological analysis and writing. I realized how important data analytics is to the field of public health, and I rely on R for almost all of my data analysis. I have also developed a working proficiency in other programs such as SAS, Matlab, and QGIS. Additionally, my practicum experience highlighted the direct impact that epidemiological analyses can have on the community, in this case by informing FDA regulations. This, coupled with my experience in the Gemstone Program, paved the way for my future research career in environmental epidemiology. Additionally, professors such as Dr. Sylvette La Touche-Howard and Dr. Robin Sawyer communicated their passion for public health so effectively in their classes that they inspired me to one day become a professor and give to students what they gave to me and my peers.