Oregon State University logo

Internship at the CDC solidifies student’s desire for career change

It wasn’t until Public Health PhD student Jennifer Przybyla was working in OSU’s Environmental & Molecular Toxicology department that she realized she was more interested in determining the “how” instead of the “what.”

“My work was to detect chemical compounds, which I found interesting, but I was really more interested in how that affected human health,” she says. “That’s how I made the jump from Chemistry to Public Health.”

She’s since been working with her PhD advisor, Assistant Professor Molly Kile, and a group of researchers within the College of Public Health and Human Sciences on a flame retardant study based in the Hallie Ford Center that’s determining the risk of flame retardants on children and pregnant women and how to prevent their negative effects.

In an effort to further her knowledge in the field of environmental and occupational health and safety and explore all options available to her, Jennifer recently spent 10 weeks in the Graduate Environmental Health Internship at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia.

“It was a great way to do independent research and learn about different environmental health avenues while networking to see if you want to go into other avenues including the non-academic route,” she says.

The internship covered multiple environmental health themes, including environmental justice, air quality, water quality, the built environment, food safety, communications, global environmental health and emergency response.

“It allowed me to see ways I could take those other themes and work them into my specialty and my interest of environmental exposure.”

“It was helpful to see how all of these themes play into each other, and because these areas aren’t my specialty, I learned a lot,” she says. “It was great, and it solidified what I want to do. I was always interested in those other areas, but it allowed me to see ways I could take those other themes and work them into my specialty and my interest of environmental exposure – specifically any kind of persistent organic pollutant.”

During the internship, Jennifer says she realized a passion that she wasn’t exposed to before – the built environment.

“The built environment is everything that enables or disables you to be healthy,” she says. “If your neighborhoods aren’t walkable or if you don’t have a good transportation system, then that’s going to decrease the air quality because everyone has to drive everywhere. I thought that was interesting because I could see how having a poor built environment could relate to my interest in chemical exposure.”

For each theme during the internship, students were able to attend an associated journal club, presentation by a CDC employee and weekly field trip to expand on their understanding of each theme.

In addition, each intern was assigned a project. For Jennifer, that meant examining the U.S. and European Union’s approaches to assessing chemical risk factors.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help and don’t be afraid to go outside your comfort zone.”

“The European Union put out a new initiative called the REACH Initiative that basically puts the burden of proof on manufacturers and importers of chemicals to determine risk levels before the chemicals are used or manufactured,” she says. “This is very different than the United States’ approach because we tend to put the burden of proof on the government after these kinds of compounds are in our environment or we’re using them.”

Jennifer says she appreciated having the opportunity to think through these kinds of policy issues and to work independently while also maintaining the support or her supervisor.

“It was nice to create my own path and learn how to take a subject from an idea all the way to a manuscript that will hopefully be published in a research journal,” she says.

Jennifer hopes to either work in a federal or state government health department setting or at the CDC focusing on environmental epidemiology and says this experience matched her desire to take a holistic, multidisciplinary approach to health.

She says the greatest lesson she’s learned from her personal career path – and this internship – is to keep an open mind.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help and don’t be afraid to go outside your comfort zone,” she says. “Even if you think you’re going down one path, talk to a colleague in a different department. You might be surprised by the many opportunities available to you – especially in the multidisciplinary field of public health.”