Jennifer Ish, PhD, MS
After graduating in August 2021, I began the next phase of my research career as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Epidemiology Branch of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. During the transition from doctoral student to postdoc, I have been focused on learning about new research areas, developing career goals, and starting new projects. Between graduation and beginning my fellowship, I had the opportunity to (virtually) attend the 33rd Annual Conference of the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology (ISEE 2021) and present a poster detailing some of my dissertation work.
What led you to public health and to occupational & environmental health in particular?
I was attracted to studying epidemiology in graduate school because it integrates the biological and social sciences and statistics—all areas that I enjoyed studying as an undergraduate. While I entered my undergraduate career expecting to pursue a clinically-related field, my interests turned to public health because of the potential to address upstream factors that contribute to health and well-being.
I don’t have a deeply personal story about how I landed in occupational and environmental epidemiology. Ultimately, it was a gradual understanding of how health is intimately connected to the social, biological and ecological environments in which we are born, live, work and play. Part of this education came from an undergraduate internship with two faculty members at the UTHealth School of Public Health in San Antonio, one of whom became my advisor during both my masters and doctoral programs (a big reason I initially came to UTHealth as a master’s student).
From early on in my graduate school career, I knew I wanted to obtain my PhD and pursue a career in research. So, after obtaining my MS in Epidemiology from UTHealth, I pursued an opportunity to enter the SWCOEH Occupational Epidemiology trainee program to continue my education and training. After studying at UTHealth and working with SWCOEH faculty members, I knew the resources and support I would receive as a trainee—both financial and academic—would be invaluable to my success as a doctoral student and would help propel me to my desired future career.
Tell us about your work. What is an average day like for you?
While NIEHS is a government organization, in many respects, it feels quite similar to an academic institution. Much of my day-to-day involves independent work performing data analysis and preparing manuscripts, collaborating with team members, and attending internal meetings and seminars to learn about projects other fellows and faculty members are working on. I am still very new to the organization and look forward to future opportunities, including collaborations with new colleagues, mentoring graduate students, and developing an early investigator grant proposal.
How did your education as a SWCOEH ERC trainee at UTHealth School of Public Health prepare you for your current career?
The epidemiology core courses were essential to my training and gave me a solid foundation of knowledge in epidemiologic principles, theories, and methodologies. I appreciated the breadth of EOHS course offerings and particularly enjoyed Toxicology II and Total Worker Health® because of the smaller class sizes, opportunities for rich discussions, and the ability to explore my own interests within the topic area. My dissertation work and contributions to other research projects gave me practical research experience, opportunities to publish manuscripts and attend conferences, and expanded my network to collaborators at other institutions. When I began my search for postdoc positions, I was well-prepared for the interview process and could demonstrate a productive record as a doctoral student. Being a NIOSH trainee was also advantageous, as the quality of training is well-recognized in EOHS fields.
The support and guidance of my advisor and former faculty member, Dr. Kristina Whitworth, throughout all aspects of my training was invaluable to my success. Dr. David Gimeno also served as an advisor and supportive mentor. I greatly appreciated the collegial environment among the faculty members with whom I worked most closely, especially my dissertation committee members, which helped me enjoy the process.
What advice do you have for students pursuing a SWCOEH ERC traineeship leading to a career in public health?
Identify a SWCOEH faculty member who has similar interests to your own and can serve as your advisor and mentor. Seek out opportunities to contribute to research projects lead by your advisor or other faculty members. Be intentional and proactive about developing your goals and pursue activities to help achieve them.