From community health to mental health, health services to health behavior, Keck School of Medicine of USC graduates of the Department of Preventive Medicine have had a chance to reflect on their studies and achievements at the university. Meet a few of the 2019 graduates in a conversation with HSC News.

  • Amanda Litty: Master of Public Health with a concentration in health communication
  • Chaelin Karen Ra: PhD in Health Behavior Research
  • Eric Takiguchi: Master of Public Health with a concentration in biostatistics and epidemiology
  • Jasmine Kayla Hall: Master of Public Health with a concentration in global health
  • Kayla Tilton: Progressive degree program with S. Health Promotion & Disease Prevention and Master of Public Health with a concentration in health services and policy
  • Sydney G. O’Connor: PhD Health Behavior Research

Why did you choose to pursue your degree?

Amanda: I chose my program because of the specific focus on health communications. I have always been interested in how we as practitioners can better communicate health messages so that populations and communities can make informed decisions regarding their health.

Eric: Since my undergraduate degree, I knew I wanted to be more involved in public health because it had aspects of health care and social justice that fulfilled the types of values and interests I grew up with. Once I took an epidemiology course, I immediately became interested pursuing a master’s degree. I knew that USC would provide me with the professors, education and immensely large network that would help me to achieve any job of my interests especially in research.

Jasmine: I chose the USC Master of Public Health Program, and a concentration in global health leadership, at the Keck School of Medicine to expand my research and understanding of how institutions with global historical — and contemporary — legacies of oppression function to inform colonized and marginalized populations’ social determinants of health and health outcomes.

Karen: Before I joined the program, I received my Master of Public Health and worked as a public health researcher and lecturer. I came to realize how important prevention and earlier interventions are and became more interested in how we can change unhealthy behaviors and promote healthier behaviors in order to prevent disease and intervene at earlier stages of disease.

Kayla: I chose this program because it is built around service learning, which poises us to become leaders of our communities in public health. Community-based experiential training gives us breadth of understanding of who we serve and how we can accomplish these goals most effectively. I knew this program would enable me to help diminish or even eliminate health inequities and disparities locally and beyond through providing a concentration in policy from the public health perspective.

Sydney: There’s so much potential for improving public health through preventive approaches. For example, a profound degree of risk for common chronic diseases, such as obesity, hypertension and cancers, can be mitigated by engaging in healthy lifestyle behaviors, such as consuming fruits and vegetables, being physically active and obtaining adequate sleep.

What has been your biggest accomplishment during your studies?

Amanda: To be completely honest, I think my biggest achievement has been completing my degree. I am extremely proud of the work I have put into this program, and have seen myself as a professional and a person. I am proud to have earned this degree and be part of the Trojan Family.
Eric: My biggest accomplishment during my education at USC was creating Pasadena’s first Communicable Disease Report. I was able to use epidemiology and data analysis coding skills to help write and design a 30-plus page report for reportable diseases in Pasadena. It also allowed me to get a glimpse of work experience I had imagined myself working in.

Jasmine: My biggest accomplishment has been creating an intervention for alcoholism and major depression that will be implemented this summer in Havana, Cuba.

Karen: I really feel like I have accomplished a lot during my PhD program — I have published a few good papers, worked with great mentors, made wonderful friends, etc. Of all of those, I would say the biggest one is: I defended my dissertation and am getting my degree after all!

Kayla: My biggest accomplishment was being able to see the impact I made in my community through my work. Through my practicum at the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, I was able to see how my efforts directly improved people’s lives through interfacing with constituents who were the beneficiaries of my various projects. For example, I engaged the underserved and uninsured community members of South L.A. to attend Care Harbor Los Angeles 2018 to receive free, comprehensive health services. It was humbling to see how a simple dental bridge or new pair of glasses can really instantaneously improve someone’s quality of life and happiness, and it felt incredible to be a part of that.

Sydney: In 2017, I was awarded a National Institutes of Health individual pre-doctoral grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (F31HL137346) to study the role of day-to-day variability in sleep health on children’s dietary quality, eating behavior and longitudinal obesity risk. This grant allowed me to build independence as a researcher and provided me with incredible opportunities for training and career development.

What’s an important lesson you learned?

Amanda: I think the most important thing I have learned is to be innovative in your approach and look a problem with multiple lenses. In public health, it is important to really consider how the same health problems are nuanced for different populations. You always have to challenge yourself to think creatively to solve problems and consider the experience and culture of the community.

Eric: An important thing I continue to learn through my education including USC is that it is important to show appreciation and love to the people (especially family) that made it possible for me to be here. Busy and tough weeks were easily relieved through a simple Facetime of seeing my family and dog. It is important that the people who allow me to be here know that I am making the most of my experience.
Jasmine: Throughout this program I have learned, through the absence of black professors in the classroom and black intellectuals on the syllabi, the critical importance of having both within institutions of higher learning. Many of my peers throughout the program would tell me how much they enjoyed being in class with me and the global perspective that I brought to the classroom. I know that this perspective comes from having a variety of knowledge sets to pull from beyond the discourse that is largely dominated by Anglo/Euro scholars. I learned that there are challenges with being the object and subject of the research and that therefore it is a necessity to be supported and affirmed by the institution in my academic endeavors.

Karen: Collaboration is key to success — this can be between colleagues or faculties. Share your ideas with others and discuss. Abstract ideas can be feasible research topics and you can expand your insights with other people’s different opinions and approaches.

Kayla: I learned to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Every time I pushed myself outside of my comfort zone in this program and in my practicum, something amazing came out of it. Being in graduate school itself is a tumultuous, unpredictable period, but learning how to outgrow discomfort has really empowered me to pursue my goals despite all other circumstances. Now I feel like anything can be thrown my way and I still will be able to accomplish what I set out to do while staying true to who I am.

Sydney: The road to a PhD is filled with many challenges. While it’s important to stay focused on the end goal, it’s also important to celebrate the small victories along the way, such as presenting at a conference or submitting an article to a journal.

What’s one of your favorite memories from your program?

Amanda: My favorite memory is going to San Diego for the 2018 American Public Health Association Conference with my fellow MPH Ambassadors! I loved listening to different panels and catching up with former colleagues.

Eric: Two of my favorite memories from the time spent in my program was being part of the Master of Public Health Student Association and being at the American Public Health Association’s Annual Conference in San Diego. Both experiences allowed me to meet people who shared my passion for improving public health while learning about the great work currently happening.

Jasmine: One of my favorite memories in the program was being able to work with MD/MPH students Nana Bonsu and Lloyd Camper. Together, we conducted a focus group at KRST Unity Center of AfRaKan Spiritual Science in South Los Angeles. The focus group was about the impact of mass incarceration on the community health. This was the first time the community had ever experienced an opportunity to process the detrimental impacts of mass incarceration and it was an honor to provide a safe space for them to do so. After our event KRST let us know that the focus group was so impactful they would be starting an entire program within the center dedicated to addressing the Prison Industrial Complex, which is a major public health issue throughout the United States.

Karen: Pulling all-nighters — working late with other students after all lights turn off at the Soto building, late-night snacking, making coffee (or driving to Starbucks) at midnight, running into the cleaning guy at 3 a.m., and going home after sunrise

Kayla: One of my favorite memories was definitely visiting Sacramento with Dr. Cousineau’s policy class. Not only did this trip to the State Capitol introduce me to the public policy and public affairs realm that turned out to be the specific path within public health that I followed, but it was such a fun bonding experience to get to know my peers in the program who I still remain close with now at the end of the program.

Sydney: Although PhD students are notorious for always working, every once in a while we would take a break to do something completely different. From forming an intramural soccer team, to seeing a musical at Hollywood Pantages, to checking out a new happy hour spot, these social events were memorable and provided a fun break from research.

What will you miss most and why?

Amanda: I will miss the faculty and staff the most. I always felt they truly cared about my education and well-being. They took a genuine interest in my experience in the MPH program and were always available to listen.

Eric: I will definitely miss my peers and professors the most! I feel comfortable contacting professors and meeting friends for lunch even after I graduate, but not seeing them on a weekly basis will be missed. The community is very inclusive, respectful and patient especially with learning new material.

Jasmine: I will miss the opportunity to exchange knowledge each week in the classroom with my peers and professors. I will miss the interdisciplinary conversations that come from being in class with students from a variety of backgrounds and the opportunities that it presented to further my own understanding of relevant health issues.

Karen: Friends, of course because I LOVE them!!

Kayla: I will miss being surrounded by such great energy and excitement for the field of public health. This program houses such diverse and different, yet somewhat like-minded individuals, and I will miss being immersed in the innovative environment this program has always fostered.

Sydney: During my time at USC, I served as an executive board member of Graduate Student Government as well as the Health Behavior Research Student Association. These opportunities allowed me to connect with fellow graduate students from across the university and build lasting friendships, which will be greatly missed.

What are you doing after you graduate?

Amanda: After I graduate I am moving to the San Francisco Bay Area and look forward to becoming a part of the public health community there!

Eric: After I graduate I plan to work using SAS, epidemiology, data management, and analysis skills I’ve learned at USC. I look forward to making great discoveries or contributions in public health.

Jasmine: I am the co-founder of The African Diaspora Alliance, an organization dedicated to black liberation and freedom for all oppressed people. Using health and education as our framework we have various initiatives that promote health, healing and solidarity throughout the African diaspora. This August, after graduation, we will implement “Diaspora Sol,” a public health intervention that will bring ​community health workers, scholars, activists, hair stylists, mental health specialists, community organizers and artists together for three days to address alcoholism and mental health among Afro-Cuban women and adolescents. After graduation, I will continue developing other initiatives such as our Youth of the Diaspora Program for which we have developed an African diaspora curriculum inclusive of study abroad opportunities.

Karen: I will relocate to Oklahoma City a week after my commencement and start working as a postdoctoral scholar at the Oklahoma Tobacco Research Center of the University of Oklahoma from June.

Kayla: I recently accepted my invitation to become a member of the Class of 2020 Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs in Los Angeles. During this fellowship, I will be involved in a series full-time projects across a variety of sectors including government, business, electoral politics, organized labor, nonprofit and philanthropy.

Sydney: I will be joining the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program in Rockville, Maryland.

What do you look forward to in your career path?

Amanda: I look forward to applying my knowledge of health communications to different areas of public health. My undergraduate degree is in nutrition and I have worked in youth sexual and reproductive health with the L.A. County Department of Public Health. I am excited to see what more there is for me to learn about this field.

Eric: Once I gain valuable work experience and see how my education is applicable in the work field I intend to reconsider a PhD in epidemiology, continue doing research or work at a Department of Public Health to make a difference at the county level.

Jasmine: In my career path I look forward to creating sustainable systems that allow for marginalized communities to have access to quality health care and education. I look forward to opening hospitals and schools/universities that are attentive to the specific needs of black and brown communities and centers the narrative of black, brown and indigenous folks. In my career path I look forward to strengthening the world of medical pluralism by bringing legitimacy to the work of traditional naturopathic medicinal methods to challenge the dominant allopathic bio-medical system that consistently fails vulnerable communities.

Kayla: I look forward to learning how to navigate the public affairs space, and the various sectors it involves, with my fellowship in order to engage efforts and influence governmental policy regarding public health. Since I already have had substantial experience working in a county political office, I’m eager to learn about additional perspectives and pathways that public health issues can be tackled from. I particularly look forward to pursuing my growing area of interest in community violence prevention in South Los Angeles.

Karen: In the short term, I will be focusing on applying for a grant. Once I get my own grant, I will start to apply for a tenure-track faculty position. My long-term goal is to be a faculty, run my own projects and mentor students.

Sydney: There is increasing public awareness of the importance of behavior for health, well-being and longevity. My goal is to continue developing a program of research investigating the behavioral contributions to disease risk throughout the lifespan and to translate these findings to tangible public health impacts.

What advice do you have for future grads?

Amanda: Be on time, prepared and enthusiastic. That will always get you a long way.

Eric: I would advise future graduates to get to know your peers and professors, and be active in your graduate degree. Two years is more than enough time to develop relationships and improve your portfolio to show employers or PhD programs that you’ve had an incredible journey. The best person to help you get what you want is yourself, so go out there and get it today!

Jasmine: My advice to future grads is to enter into the program lighthearted and to remain grounded in their purpose for pursuing the degree. I would encourage graduates to find ways to make their scholarship always stay in service to the communities that they work with and for. My advice is to vacillate between peace and joy and to remember that even when facing challenges, all situations are coming to them for the reclamation of their peace and ultimately their highest good.

Karen: I know it is never easy, but you will get there eventually. Hang in there!!

Kayla: Network! This includes with your professors! Do not be afraid to ask for opportunities or to put yourself out there find an opportunity. Network as much as you can through attending MaPHSA events, your practicum contacts and going to the career fair! Also read the career fair emails for jobs and fellowships.

Sydney: Know that you belong here. Don’t let fears and insecurities cloud your goals and reasons for entering your field.

Compiled by Larissa Puro