Written by Jory Gomes ’18
A microbiologist, a politician, a journalist, an exercise scientist, and an epidemiologist walk into a bar… then they save the world. OK, so maybe this scenario is a little far-fetched. But, to Dr. Chris Mundorf, Ph.D., and his public health students (myself included), this is the hypothetical scenario we dream of. The term “public health” often gives people the impression of the local sanitarian going around to restaurants and shutting them down at the first sight of a cockroach. While this is an undoubtedly important part of public health, the reality is that the field is much more diverse. Public health is essentially just looking at health on a population level. To go back the bar scenario, we need public health-minded people in every field imaginable to solve the issues that threaten our world today. In looking at public health emergencies, like large-scale refugee movements, tropical disease pandemics, or a failing health care system, no one area of study is equipped to handle the issue. All of these concerns require a varied group of people to come together and find a solution—a principle that Dr. Mundorf’s class “How To change The World” is built upon. This ethos is a hallmark of what Dr. Mundorf instills in his students.
“A graduate could work behind the scenes by doing analysis, laboratory work, or field work. A graduate could work more with people, helping to educate, persuade, and mobilize disparate populations. A graduate could work within the government, in a hospital, or in a nonprofit. A graduate could work here in Portage County or halfway around the world. There is a growing need for public health professionals. It’s just a matter of the student’s interests and desires,” says Dr. Mundorf of public health professionals entering the field. “Public health often has the highest job placement rate for undergraduates because it is so flexible.”
The ethos of social responsibility, interdisciplinarity, and cooperation are not lost on Dr. Mundorf’s students. Senior Tim Hatfield ‘18 explains his choice of major by explaining that it “provides him the opportunity to make differences in communities that are underserved and underrepresented.” Hatfield wants to put his focus toward “social epidemiology,” which centers on the social factors of the distribution of disease. Seeing the effect that poverty has on disenfranchised communities, he feels a responsibility to make change; “I’m able to be a voice for those who do not have one. I’m able to fight for those who cannot fight. It gives me the ability to make a difference, and that means the world to me,” Hatfield says
Fellow senior Rachel Metcalf ‘18 seconds these remarks by saying that “public health is about promoting and protecting the health of communities, tracking disease outbreaks, preventing injuries, and determining who is more likely to suffer poor health comes.” Expanding upon this, she further develops Dr. Mundorf’s comments about the far reach that public health has as a field. “It [public health] can mean promoting certain laws and policies, educating the public, conducting research, or even setting safety standards for working and living conditions,” she says.
Both Metcalf and Hatfield want to pursue careers in epidemiology. They are infatuated with the idea of tracking disease and researching underserved communities to identify ways to improve quality of life and health outcomes. When asked why this interests him, Hatfield responded, “Everything is a puzzle, and you are the puzzle solver. You really have to challenge yourself to think outside the box at all times. Like any detective, you want and need to find an answer fast to solve the issue so that people stop suffering.”
A focus on epidemiology is undoubtedly important for the field as a whole, but even at a small institution like Hiram, students have varying interests. Some want to go into direct health care as physician assistants. Others are dual exercise science and public health students who want to create a more physically fit world. Still others, like myself, want to use their studies in sociology and political science to advocate for policy changes and cultural shifts that benefit people on both a local and international level.
My personal desire to go from studying public health to wrestling with governmental and societal structures is in a way adjacent to Dr. Mundorf’s move into the field. When asked to explain what made him move career-wise from politics to public health he said, “I was working for a congressman after college when I started volunteering at a free clinic for refugees. I was struck by the diversity of the people needed to make such an essential service function properly. No two people had the same talents or backgrounds, but everyone had to work together. I really like that about public health.”
This idea of interdisciplinarity in action is at the core of what it means to work in public health—no matter your title, or what exactly it is that you do within the field. Dr. Mundorf has said that “the only real common denominator in public health is the desire to help others,” and his students are dedicated in showing that this virtue is alive and well at Hiram.