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I was accepted to Capella University's Master of Public Health program in the spring of 2020 – it was the final day of classes before Covid-19 would shut down the Ohio State campus for the remainder of the semester. It felt like a sigh of relief to know that my next step was in place and was already designed to be completed entirely online. There wouldn't be any on-the-fly adaptation to the new virtual way of academia; this is exactly how the course was built to function. What I wasn't prepared for was the most nerve-wracking portion of my entire degree – securing a practicum in the middle of a pandemic. There was no guidance offered from my university. It was entirely up to the learners to secure a practicum site to successfully graduate. I sent off a dozen applications and emails. I applied to local health departments, the state health department, organizations around Columbus that I had any type of professional interest or alignment with. It seemed like everyone responded with the same message: "We are not currently accepting practicum students due to the pandemic. Please check back later."
In the midst of my discouragement, I received a response from Dr. Kara Morgan that was different from all the responses that came before it. She invited me in for an interview to work on a project looking at seafood consumption during pregnancy and the neurocognitive effects on the child. I spent the two weeks between scheduling my interview and attending my interview studying up on the subject. I wanted to be knowledgeable and prepared when I sat down to talk to her. We discussed my interests in the field and what I hoped to achieve during my practicum. My interests included maternal and fetal health, followed by food safety and security. The project could not have been a better professional fit! I told her that my biggest goal was to gain experience and exposure in the field. Funnily enough, the most significant public health crisis in my lifetime was gatekeeping my ability to gain the two things that I needed the most. Dr. Morgan had never worked with a student that wasn't an Ohio State student, especially not one with the strange practicum schedule that I was requesting. But despite all of that, she offered me a role on a project with CFI, and I was ecstatic to accept.
During my first week at my practicum, Dr. Morgan introduced me to a partner on the project, and together they explained my role to me. I was the second reviewer on a meta-analysis. I would spend four hours every Monday in the CFI office completing a meta-analysis of 64 journal articles. I had never conducted a meta-analysis before. But it sounded like something I could do - read through the journal articles, collect the data we were interested in. Easy enough.
So, for eight weeks, that is exactly what I did. I came in every Monday; I scrolled through the journal articles. I collected the data of interest: year of publication, number of participants, outcomes being measured, study limitations. Looking at all the research studies was beneficial to me in one of my Research Methods course this semester. The time that I spent shuffling through the articles during my practicum gave a big boost in my ability to decipher through the entire article to find the important pieces. It also helped me feel not so overwhelmed by massive journal articles that felt indigestible, because now I know exactly where to find the information I’m seeking. It saved a lot of time and anxiety when completing assignments. But more importantly, I met an incredible group of intellectuals. I met other MPH and Ph.D. students. I got to discuss their education and career paths with them. We got to reflect on our goals and establish networks with one another. They offered me encouragement that I didn't know I needed at the time. On the ninth week, I collaborated with my partner on the project. We compared our analyses and had constructive conversations about the differences we noticed and how to correct them. I got to meet a variety of professionals in the department. While I continued chipping away at my beast of a meta-analysis, I listened in to several meetings that I wasn't necessarily invited to and gained a world of exposure to different sectors in the field and different issues and topics that CFI and its staff play a role in. I got to absorb a seemingly whole new world of knowledge while I watched the entire department work as a well-oiled machine.
However, I underestimated the absolute confidence that I would have gained from this practicum experience. I think back to sitting in my interview with Dr. Morgan, where I had no experience in the field. My only goal was to get my foot in the door. I think back to my first day of the practicum experience, staring at my blank, daunting spreadsheet, unsure of where to begin. The growth that this practicum experience has offered to me has been unmatched. I have another 10 weeks of my practicum to complete with CFI. Dr. Morgan and I have discussed moving to a new project when I return for the second portion. But I feel more confident than I ever have to step into a new project, and brand-new professional world. My practicum project with Dr. Morgan and CFI has helped equip me with skills and tools that I'll need to be successful, and for that, I will forever be grateful.
In the past, food safety and nutrition were generally not considered jointly, but were managed as two separate issues. That separation can lead to less-than-optimal decision making. There is a new interest in building a decision-making framework that includes both nutrition and food safety jointly, with the intent of improving health outcomes.
One issue in which food safety and nutrition are relevant is seafood consumption during pregnancy. Due to mercury contamination in most bodies of water and therefore in the aquatic food chain, federal guidance asks pregnant women to limit their consumption of seafood due to the risk of impact on their unborn child from mercury. This warning often leads pregnant women to avoid eating seafood altogether. But we also know that seafood provides essential nutrition for the unborn child and research has shown the positive outcomes from prenatal seafood consumption. So, what if the lack of seafood in pregnant women’s diets could actually be doing more harm than good?
As part of our Masters in Public Health Program, we are required to complete a practicum that required to work with an organization on a project or topic related to public health and produce some sort of outcome that reflects our experience. This experience is meant to give us real world experience in the public health field. We were challenged to meet some competencies, such as analyze and interpret data obtained from an epidemiologic investigation and perform effectively on interprofessional teams. We were both excited to work on the Health Outcomes of Prenatal Seafood Consumption Project (HOPs) to meet our practicum requirements. The project’s overall goal is to quantify the impact of current levels of prenatal seafood consumption on the health outcomes of children in the United States. This can be broken down into two parts. Gabby’s practicum experience focused on determining how to update estimates of prenatal consumption of seafood. While Liberty’s practicum experience focused on preparing for a meta-analysis to investigate the impact of seafood on child neurodevelopmental outcome. Once we come up with an estimate for seafood consumption, we can use information from the meta-analysis to determine how the cognitive development of children here in the United States is being affected by seafood consumption.
As part of the HOPs project, we worked on an interprofessional team of public health professionals, along with a physician, a lawyer, and individuals who used to work with the Food and Drug Administration. As a team, we worked together to set goals and benchmarks for the project. We also met with others who worked in the field of nutrition to get their input on different aspects of the project. We examined systematic reviews and cohort studies and gained experience interpreting the results of data analysis.
Over the summer, we identified a data source to quantify seafood consumption and started collecting and preparing the data that will be used in the meta-analysis. Both of us plan to work with CFI for our culminating project to further examine the impact of current levels of prenatal seafood consumption on the health outcomes of the children here in the United States.