On the Monday before Thanksgiving, on Public Health Thank You Day, Research!America and leading public health organizations take the time to say “thank you” to our public health workforce who work tirelessly every day to protect us from disease, injury, and other health threats. This year’s theme, “Why Public Health?,” calls attention to the ways public health professionals work to promote and protect health and shines a light on their dedication to serving communities across the country. This year, we’re highlighting future public health leaders, MPH students, and recent MPH graduates in this new blog series.
Dana-Marie Thomas PhD, MSCMP, is a cyber-security and resilience researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). She describes herself as an “innovation-driven catalyst” with a myriad of professional experience, including a policy background in cyber and energy security, including cybersecurity for critical infrastructure, regulatory compliance, behavioral science, and public and community health. Much of her scholarship has focused on community-engaged approaches to identify environmental determinants of health among populations at greater risk of disease. At NREL, many of the projects that she leads or supports include providing technical assistance to communities and organizations in the planning and implementation of clean energy projects. She is also one of the community leads with the Department of Energy Clean Energy to Communities (C2C) Expert Match program, where she is actively involved in driving initiatives that benefit underserved and rural BIPOC farming communities, particularly around agrivoltaics. She acts as a liaison between communities and subject matter experts and help to scope and monitor the work. In addition, Dana-Marie is currently in the process of receiving her MPH from the Brown University School of Public Health. We were able to discuss her career and decision to study public health. Here are some of her insights:
Why did you choose to study public health?
“I believe the [MPH] program offers a bridge of endless opportunities and prepares students for a successful career in public health, with a unique program of study designed to train academic excellence and leadership skills. I am particularly drawn to the intersection of public health and the energy sector, specifically regarding community resilience. I believe the online MPH program [at Brown] will enable me to contribute to sustainable public health solutions for underserved communities, and I firmly believe clean energy is vital for the betterment of public health.”
What do you think are the most pressing issues in public health today?
“I think [one issue is] environmental health, particularly in underserved and historically marginalized areas. Like the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Mississippi – these people still don’t have clean water. The limited coordination among policymakers exacerbates these problems. There are key barriers that have been systemic, so how do you overcome these barriers within these communities? Also, there’s mental health, particularly depression and PSTD. I think that is something that we will continue to see, particularly in the context of COVID-19. Another key area involves emergency preparedness response, with some communities receiving faster responses during disruptive events. We have people that rely on medical devices and oxygen that require electricity. So, what happens to the elderly and people with disabilities, with respect to their care when there is a disruptive event? What about the underserved and rural BIPOC farmers? If people are not leaving [after a disruptive event], what systems or resources can be put in place to address those that stay? What education and planning can be done at the community level? Addressing these interconnected challenges comprehensively and rethinking current strategies to address these issues is essential. Now that I work at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, I consistently strive for equitable solutions to some of our most challenging energy questions. Which is work my Group Manager, Eliza Hotchkiss, is involved in – looking at place-based energy resilient technologies, hazards with extreme weather events, disaster recovery, and strategic energy security.”
Upon graduating, what do you plan to do with your degree?
“I believe an MPH degree from Brown University’s School of Public Health, together with my experience in energy security and resilience, will enable me to identify patterns and trends in large-scale health and energy data and develop cutting-edge health-related clean power technology solutions.”
Could you share any advice for anyone who wants to pursue a degree in public health?
“Explore your interests. Public health is a diverse field with many specializations, so find an area that aligns with your passion and goals. Gain relevant experience through internships, volunteer work, or research projects that can provide valuable hands-on experience. Build a strong foundation by developing a solid understanding of public health principles, epidemiology, statistics, and research methods. Network! Connect with professionals in the field, attend conferences, and engage with faculty and peers in your program. And stay updated. Public health is an evolving field; keep abreast of current research, policies, and emerging health issues.”
What have been some of the challenges you have experienced?
“I am visually impaired, which has been one of my main challenges. There is so much to read and data to work with. I have to stay up to date with accessible technology so that I am able to complete my work. In terms of the public health field, I think there are certain biases that exist. [Not everyone is the same] – there are cultural differences in terms of what is normal. It’s essential to recognize that cultural diversity, represented by individuals of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, introduces unique perspectives. I sometimes think researchers conducting studies aren’t taking this into consideration and have yet to fully grasp the significance of diversity and its impact on health outcomes. By actively embracing cultural diversity in public health research, we can create more equitable and effective interventions for all.”
How can we inspire a younger generation to be interested in pursuing a career in public health?
“We can inspire a younger generation by raising awareness and highlighting the impact of public health on individuals and communities through educational programs, media campaigns, and storytelling. [Also,] engage in outreach – organize events, workshops, and mentoring programs that introduce young people to public health concepts and professionals. Showcase public health role models and highlight successful individuals who have made a difference in public health to serve as inspiration. Lastly, connect to real-world issues. Emphasize how public health can address pressing global challenges, making it a meaningful and relevant career choice.”