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Southwest Center for Occupational and Environmental Health

Bethany Boggess Alcauter, PhD, MPH   

BAlcauterIn March 2020, I accepted a position focused on research and evaluation with the National Center for Farmworker Health, a non-profit organization, while working on my dissertation as a SWCOEH trainee. I am a program director at the organization, where I supervise a binational team of 12 individuals who work on a CDC-funded cooperative agreement to address COVID-19 and infectious diseases among agricultural workers. I feel extremely lucky to work in this position in the non-profit sector, which combines my passions for public health, labor rights, multiculturalism, and serving vulnerable populations. I graduated from SWCOEH in May 2021, and plan to continue in my current role.

What led you to public health and to occupational & environmental health in particular?

I was drawn to work in public health because of the interdisciplinary nature of the field – I have always found anthropology, sociology, biomedicine, chemistry, and mathematics interesting, and public health is one of the few fields where you can touch on all of these topics. I have always been particularly interested in occupational health because I have spent much of my adult life working in low-wage industries with a high number of occupational health risks, such as agriculture, construction, landscaping, and the service industry. UTHealth was the only graduate school option I considered, as all of my roots are in Texas and I care deeply about the health and well-being of low-wage workers, and especially immigrant workers, in this state. I wanted to continue my education here in Texas, and I was drawn to the SWCOEH occupational epidemiology program due to their focus on conducting research with low-wage workers here in the South and in Central America.

Tell us about your work. What is an average day like for you? 

My average day is always changing, which is something I love. Some days I work 16 hours, driving to rural farms and visiting farmworkers who have recently arrived from Mexico to provide health education and coordinate vaccination clinics. Other days I review Spanish-language radio PSAs promoting the COVID-vaccine, oversee the development of a data dashboard and present project impact reports to funders and project stakeholders. Much of my time is spent doing virtual meetings – with staff I supervise – and with external partners, including federal government staff, community-based organization personnel, local public health authorities, and Mexican government staff. I also spend quite of bit of time engaging directly with immigrant farmworkers through social media, WhatsApp, and in-person to ensure that our project’s programming is in-tune with workers’ needs and cultural backgrounds and that their voice is incorporated into all aspects of the project.

How did your education as a SWCOEH ERC trainee at UTHealth School of Public Health prepare you for your current career? 

I greatly valued the kind and thoughtful feedback from several faculty, including Dr. Delclos, Dr. Douphrate, Dr. Gimeno, Dr. Gabriel, and former faculty member Dr. Lisa Pompeii. Several courses that I felt were particularly useful included Epidemiology IV, an R programming class, and epi methods for environmental and occupational epidemiology. I do think academic programs need to be adapted to include more leadership development or program management courses since many of us who earn PhDs will end up managing large teams or large projects, and leadership and management are very important skills. I have kept in touch with a few classmates, primarily Dr. Anabel Rodriguez, who is a colleague that I very much appreciate and respect.

What advice do you have for students pursuing a SWCOEH ERC traineeship leading to a career in public health? 

Make sure this is something you are passionate about. If you are passionate about occupational or environmental health, you will not struggle to find work in this field, and the field needs more passionate individuals pursuing rigorous research in order to protect the health and well-being of workers and their families. The traineeship is an excellent opportunity to pursue your passion and to contribute knowledge to this field.