Ans Irfan, MD, MPH Student

Environmental Health

1. In one sentence, what is public health to you?

Public health is the protection and amelioration of all what we eat, drink, breathe, and where we live, work and play. Public health is like oxygen; it is critical, but we do not see it in action.

2. What inspired you to study public health?

My first hands-on experience with public health was during my final year of medical school, working as a physician at a rural community health center in Pakistan. I noticed a systematic phenomenon of investing excessively in clinical medicine and scarcely on preventive care despite knowing the benefits of public health with little investment, particularly to help underprivileged populations. I perceived this blind faith in medical treatment as one of the root causes of ailing health systems, further perpetuating health disparities. I also noticed a lack of contextual understanding of disease in healthcare systems and overlooking the social and cultural dimensions of human health.

I focused on health education during patient interactions on topics such as sanitation, vector-borne diseases, and heat exposure. It was rewarding to see the positive outcomes with such little investment. Realizing the benefits of population health led me to pursue a lifelong career as a public health practitioner rather than a physician. Not to mention, soon after exploring public health I fell in love with it, heads-over-heels and I am still a kid in a candy shop – loving all things public health.

3. What has been the single most rewarding experience of your career/studies so far?

The Interdisciplinary Student Community-Oriented Prevention Enhancement Service (ISCOPES) is perhaps one of the most rewarding experience thus far. It is experiential learning, public health practice experience where one works with interdisciplinary teams of graduate students from different academic areas to serve marginalized and underserved communities in Washington, D.C.

My project involved working with inner city African American youth at the Dunbar High School, to improve the health and life outcomes not only on the short-term but also on the long-term. We focused on public health education and capacity building by exposing the participants to healthy lifestyles that went well beyond fitness and wellness and included all aspects of life from nutrition and climate change to sex education and career options in public health.

4. What is the one piece of advice you wish someone had given you when you were starting out in public health?

Pursue as many internships, fellowships, and volunteer work as possible. This experience will give you a systems-level thinking and a better understanding of complex challenges in public health.

Also, look up the job descriptions for what you might be interested in and learn the skills needed out there. During school, or even early in your career, develop transferable skills which will be an asset regardless of your work in public health. Skills such as policy analysis, quantitative and qualitative analysis, data analysis and management, valuation modeling, climate modeling, WASH, GIS, SAS, SPSS, R, are invaluable and indispensable no matter what where you end up working. Follow your heart; public health can be tough and requires patience, but it is addictively rewarding.

5. What do you think is the biggest challenge that the public health field should be focusing on?

There are several challenges such as health equity and environmental justice which encompass a broad range of issues, from police brutality to obesity. However, public health communications are the single most important challenge that we ought to do a better job if we are to build consensus among all stakeholders and deliver evidence-based programs and policies to improve population health.