Thursday, August 16, 2007

Lessons, Years in the Making

Today's blog may seem somewhat scattered and not entirely ordered compared to my previouos ones. This is mostly do to the fact I have several topics to touch none and I'm not really sure how to put them all together. I do know I need to explain one important thing first, my fellowship.

I am here in Washington D.C. due to an ASPH fellowship. ASPH stands for the Association of Schools of Public Health. I applied for this fellowship last spring while I was still in graduate school, where incidently I was working on a Master's in Public Health. ASPH has several fellowship opportunities with various agencies, EPA, CDC, HRSA, ATSDR, and others. Throughout the year they announce openings and then public health students apply to them. Well I applied to the EPA one as I'm an environmental public health student and it seemed to fit. I received a great score on my initial application then was brought out for an interview with their EPA/ASPH review board (all expenses paid, too). From here the board sent out further recommendations to the various offices that I had applied with. Then, the final stage happened with me interviewing via phone with the various departments that I had applied with and with several others I hadn't. Then placements were given based on all the interviews and recommendations, and so here I am. Whew, talk about a grueling process. That, ladies and gentlemen is a good overview of bureacrecy at work (something that I've immediately learned here). The fellowship itself is for one year (with an option for two or for hire). I receive a stipend, travel/training money, helath insurance money, and Metro money. However, that doesn't fully explain to you all exactly what I do (as I was conveniently asked by my sister this past weekend). So here's a description of that... along with several lessons learned along the way.

My official department is the Office of Science Advisor under the Office of Research and Development at the EPA. That's the official title. I work though with the Human Subjects Research Division in particular. This department deals with various environmental human subjects research that is occurring throughout the agency both at federal, state, and local levels. More importantly, I deal with ethical issues, and more precisely still with environmental public health ethical issues regarding this research. I work to make sure investigators are following proper procedures, considering the integrity of the subjects, and making sure public health is being promoted. I'm actually the only one with a public health degree so I bring a very unique perspective to the situation. My big job, though, for this year is to create public health ethics education that is going to be used by the entire agency. One thing I've come to realize and have learned is that most people have no idea how to ethical do a study. The scientists here are so enthusiastic about what they're doing that they often forget they are dealing with people. As a scientist I can understand why this happens (for those who don't know i have a B.S. in chemistry/biology), but with my public health experience I see how we need to be promoting health and ensuring safety to these communities. It's really interesting to see how my two backgrounds have steered me in this task. So this education is to help those researchers conduct studies in ways that is ethically sound but also helps promote public health. Currently the EPA has no such training and so I am basically doing it from scratch. It should be exciting. I'll keep you updated on how it's going.

All that leads me into my main topic of discussion... lessons learned.

I had lunch with some of the other fellows today (we do this about every two weeks since we started in July) and were discussing what we've been doing, our frustrations with burecrecy and just what we've begun learning in our various divisions. Well at one point as we were discussing health outcomes and possible ways of measuring them among the Alaskan villages when there's no current standard, and how health outcomes is a priority among EPA but not currently assessed- it hit me that I've actually learned something from school and from my brief time here. I actually know what's being talked about, how to address the problem and what the problem is. Charlie, one of the other fellows, actually made that point. He stated how when we first started getting together we all felt like we had no clue what was going on or how anything worked and now here we are (about two months later) talking about the OMB (office of Management of and Budget), proper research engagement status, industry stake in EPA, and the correct way to do an ecological based study with risk assessors. It was kind of surreal actually. As students we often wonder if anything we learn will actually help us in the real world and it has.

However, more surprising than the fact that you do remember what you learn is school is the fact that I've learned so much here so far. I've learned loads regarding ethics, public health ethics, IRBs, and human subjects, and still lots to. Also, learned about the world of DC as well: the politics, the transportation, the street layout, and the people. I've learned about the spirituality of this region (which is another blog in itself) and how things work. Basically it's been a really interesting ride so far. As I finish up (and sorry this is so long this time) I just want to say it hasn't been easy. Learning new things never is and everyone has ups and downs. But just continue pressing on. Seeking new things, new lessons, no matter where they're from. You never know when you may use them. Until next time...

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