February 21, 2024

The FACETS program directs undergraduates toward public health careers news

July 21, 2023 – Growing up, Shana Grant knew she wanted to pursue a health-related career, so she set her sights on the path she knew best – becoming a doctor. But when she was in college, she discovered that the idea of ​​practicing medicine wasn’t quite right.

“I didn’t know how to express my interest in health and improving health equity without being a doctor,” Grant said. Then, during a casual conversation one day, someone suggested that public health might fit the bill. She remembered thinking at the time, “I’ve never heard that before.”

To learn more about this field, Grant, a rising senior at Spelman College, applied to the Fostering Advances & Careers through Enrichment in Science (FACETS) summer program held at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. Run by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion since 2014, the six-week program offers rising junior and senior undergraduate students from underrepresented groups across the country a combination of interdisciplinary coursework, hands-on research and professional development in the field of public health.

Erica Knight, director of FACETS, noted that historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and tribal colleges and universities are often underrepresented in public health—and that’s where FACETS comes in.

Doing research, preparing for grad school

FACETS coursework emphasizes the interdisciplinary nature of public health, covering topics from environmental health to social and behavioral sciences to global health to biostatistics.

Humza Irfan, a rising senior at the University of Michigan, at the research symposium

In addition to taking classes, students conduct research under the mentorship of Harvard Chan faculty and researchers and present their projects at a symposium at the end of the program. Research projects conducted by nine students in this year’s cohort focused on health disparities, addressing topics such as the prevalence of toxic metals in Black women’s personal care products, the barriers undocumented immigrants face in accessing health care, and the impact of meditation on stress and cardiovascular disease in Black women.

The professional development for FACETS students is focused on graduate school preparation. Students learn skills in writing personal statements, networking, and building relationships with research mentors. Chan’s current Harvard students serve as mentors for FACETS participants, helping to give them an understanding of graduate school culture and what to look for in a graduate program.

“We want the students to leave the program with a strategy for how to pursue graduate studies and ultimately how to pursue their career,” Knight said. “We want to leave them with an arsenal of tools to help them negotiate and advocate for themselves.”

In one of the professional development workshops held this summer, Amarildo “Lilu” Barbosa, chief diversity, inclusion and belonging officer at the Harvard Chan School, spoke about the importance of minority representation in public health. Students discussed the challenges faced by underrepresented minorities in professional settings – by sharing personal experiences and analyzing a case study.

Overall, the workshop emphasized that students should consider these representational issues as future leaders in public health, regardless of their roles. “This is a lens you should be applying to your future work,” said Barbosa. “If people are doing that, it adds to whatever work is involved.”

Career inspiration

Group photo
FACETS 2023 cohort with program director Erica Knight (far right) and Harvard graduate student mentors Chan

Grant is currently completing a degree in chemistry with a minor in theater and performing arts. She said her experience in FACETS sparked her interest in becoming a public health researcher.

Mentored by Tamarra James-Todd, Mark and Catherine Winkler Associate Professor of Environmental Reproductive Epidemiology, Grant worked on a research project about hair products targeting Black women, which may contain hormone-disrupting chemicals. Grant studied possible correlations between product use and a very severe form of alopecia – a disease that causes hair loss – which results in permanent scarring. During the project, she was able to develop and explore her own research questions about the subject.

Grant also appreciated the opportunity to speak with researchers in the field—in some cases, those who wrote the papers she was reading. “A lot of them said, ‘Let’s keep in touch,’ which makes me feel like I’m meant to be here—like my thoughts are valid,” she said.

Looking ahead, she plans to apply to PhD programs that will enable her to research the social determinants of health, with the goal of eventually working in the non-profit sector to promote Black maternal health.

FACETS student Gene Pozas—a senior at the University of Florida majoring in microbiology and cell science—started college as a pre-med student but then realized he wanted to change his focus. “I realized that I could make a bigger impact through public health. It could affect more people,” he said.

He researched the mentoring of the Irish League Britney Francishealth and human rights research fellow at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights who studies racial disparities in maternal health. His research project looked at how environmental stressors, such as living in places with noise pollution or food deserts, can affect the risk of preeclampsia in Black and Hispanic pregnant women.

Pozas also had the opportunity to meet Chan’s Harvard faculty with expertise in environmental health, encouraging him to consider studying in the field. “There are a lot of great professors who have taught what environmental health is, what it’s all about,” he said. “And it showed me how broad it is and how we can apply it in everyday life.”

– Jay Lau

Photos of the FACETS research symposium: Anna Webster

FACETS cohort photo: Osa Igiede

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