Hello! And, good-bye!

September 5, 2014 by

tiffany-yangFunny, as you’re beginning classes and settling into Ann Arbor, I’m on my way out after a decade (within a week!). I came in as a wary freshman unsure about what her future was going to look like and am leaving as a PhD (yes! I successfully defended in May!), MPH, RD who still has no idea what her future looks like.

What can I say about the time I’ve spent here?

I think it’s clear that the education and opportunities have been top-notch enough for me to risk the silent disapproval of academics who believe that staying in one institution is bad for your career trajectory. Also, Ann Arbor is a really great place to go to school. You get four seasons, great microbreweries, the food culture is vibrant (though, not always cheap), there’s the Arb, and you get to mingle with really cool people. 

But, now that is all behind me. Now that I’m actually moving, the idea of actually leaving a place where I spent most of my conscious life and where I became an “adult” (does anyone actually achieve this status?) is kind of scary. Exciting, but definitely scary. I’ve wanted to “try” somewhere else for a while and had been actively looking outside the United States for opportunities. I have to say, even as a native-born with immigrant parents, I never really realized just how difficult it is to move to a country you didn’t grow up in. Props to all the international students and staff who made that leap. It’s not easy, as I’ve come to find out.

So, where am I going from here?

Following my defense, I started applying to positions in academia or industry. I think we should all be repetitively warned, starting in childhood, that applying to jobs takes a lot time and is mentally and physically taxing. Cover letters take more crafting than I would have imagined. I got an interview offer for a position I was really interested in and, within two weeks, signed my contract. What. I felt like a badly programmed robot working on autopilot trying to find information in order to apply for my working visa, get my biometrics done, and figure out how to ship my stuff overseas (see you in October, kitchen tools). It was step, by step, by step. The magnitude of what I had done didn’t hit me until the plane took off from Detroit.

So, where am I going? I’m moving to Scotland. Scotland. I’ll be starting a position as a research fellow at the Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health at the University of Aberdeen (which, I’ve been telling everyone, probably to their annoyance, looks like the world from Harry Potter). I’ll continue on in research, but in dietary patterns instead of Bisphenol A and phthalates.

I am sad to leave a place I’ve called home for so long, but am looking forward to the change. I wish you all luck and success in your endeavors. Though I’ve been spotty the past few years, I’ve enjoyed writing for the SPH blog and hope that my experiences have been somewhat insightful (no? ok). To quote our retired President, Mary Sue Coleman, “for today, good-bye. For tomorrow, good luck, and forever, Go Blue”.

Welcome to Public Health!

August 28, 2014 by

charles-zhouAs public health programs around the country begin this week, I’d like to extend a warm welcome to everyone entering the field of public health–my future classmates here at the University of Michigan as well as friends at schools of public health around the country and around the world. You’ve made a great decision and you’re going to help solve some of our toughest problems. As some wise person probably once said, there is no nobler cause than service to humanity, which in my opinion is the core of public health.

Now, I realize that I’m maybe one of the least qualified people to speak on behalf of all of public health as a student halfway done with his masters degree. However, you can (and do) learn a lot in a year. Here are a few of the big lessons I’ve picked up:

1. Our work is mostly unseen and unappreciated…until something big happens.

As of 2012, the United States spends 32 times as much money on medical costs as it did on public health (per person). Why? Because when we do our jobs, people stay healthy (or become more so). We’re fortunate to live in a world where this is increasingly the norm, where being healthy is taken for granted. That also means less attention to public health efforts and consequently less funding. We’re mostly invisible until something beyond our control happens, such as the recent Toledo water crisis or recent Ebola outbreak–then it’s our turn to shine.

2. You learn to work with everyone else really quickly.

As an Environmental Health Sciences (EHS) student, my classes focus on various aspects of environmental health. However, there is absolutely no avoiding the fact that policy and behavior/education impact health just as much as the environment does, nor can anyone claim that they won’t apply methods from epidemiology or biostatistics in their work. And the School of Public Health is just one of 19 schools and colleges at the University of Michigan. Success in public health requires you to look at the world from many different perspectives, and a great way to get some of these perspectives is by working with people with a different lens than you.

3. Public health people know how to balance work and fun, and they’re some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.

With the exception of the awesome ecologists I used to work with, you’d have a hard time finding a community that is more welcoming, supportive, hard-working, and fun than your SPH family, and the big worldwide public health family. Because in the end, all of us want the same thing: a healthier world for everyone to live in.

Again, welcome, and I look forward to working with you!

To any new (or old) University of Michigan SPH students reading this: please stop me and say hi when you see me around campus, or email me at chzhou[at]umich.edu! I’d love to meet all of you and I’d be happy to chat. If you get lost, want suggestions for places to eat/things to do around Ann Arbor, or have any questions in general, I’d be happy to help–I was a university tour guide for 3 years as an undergraduate.

Ice bucket challenge…or not

August 21, 2014 by

charles-zhouIf for some reason you haven’t heard of the Ice Bucket Challenge over the past few weeks, it goes a bit like this. Someone posts a video of themselves pouring a bucket of ice water on themselves, then nominates a few of his or her friends to do the same within 24 hours or donate $100 to an ALS charity. Suddenly, your entire Facebook news feed is videos of people pouring buckets of ice water on themselves.

In light of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, I’ve decided to donate to a somewhat related organization. There’s nothing wrong with raising awareness about ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The ALS Association, to whom many people have donated, has four stars (the top rating) from Charity Navigator, meaning they are transparent and responsible with their donations. As of this blog post, ALSA has raised $41.8 million in the past three weeks. Again–there is nothing wrong with donating to end ALS.

However, there are many other wonderful nonprofit organizations out there that deserve the same attention that finding a cure for ALS has received in the past few weeks. I’ve decided to give to charity: water, in lieu of pouring a bucket of ice water over myself and in hopes that at least one person learns something about the importance of safe, clean water.

In the grand scheme of things, the water used by people doing the Ice Bucket Challenge isn’t that much. However, as a public health student, it would be wrong (at least symbolically) for me to waste a bucketful of water. The average American family of four uses 400 gallons of water a day. Except in very rare instances, we don’t think twice about drinking from the tap or taking a 30 minute shower. Only events such as the recent crisis in Toledo give us a very temporary glimpse into how hundreds of millions of people live. Seemingly unlimited clean water is taken for granted here and in many places around the world.

Now on the flip side. It’s not surprising that the United Nations has made access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation a Millennium Development Goal. The World Health Organization has deemed that access to 20 liters of clean water per day, within one kilometer, is sufficient for drinking and basic hygiene for one person. That’s a bit over 5 gallons–an office water cooler jug plus change. Forty-four pounds, carried up to one kilometer. And those are the lucky ones.

While the world has made good progress toward access to clean water and sanitation for all, 800 million people are still waiting. With dirty water comes diseases that most of us haven’t heard of, let alone know how to pronounce (schistosomiasis, anyone?)–diseases that kill millions every year. With women and children as the main people collecting water, walking miles just to get dirty water, kids spend less time in school and women must lead less productive lives. Improved health is not the only benefit to having clean water. In time, it leads to stronger communities, which is just as important.

Now, a bit about charity: water. Since 2006, the organization has funded over 13,000 water projects in 22 countries. It has a unique funding model: 100% of donations like mine or yours (unless you happen to be Bill Gates) go towards water projects, and the costs of running the organization are covered by generous foundations, individuals, and sponsors. Charity Navigator has given charity: water a four star rating. You can learn more about charity: water here and make a donation here.

Government internship, round 2

July 17, 2014 by

charles-zhouThis post is part of a series about my summer internship. For background, please see the first post.

Three summers ago, I interned in Washington, D.C. and it’s probably the reason I’m writing this blog post as a public health student. Science had always been a forte and a singular focus of mine. A summer in D.C. made me realize that policy is another channel through which I could change the world. Upon returning, I changed my major and abandoned the idea of medical school.

For those of you unfamiliar with Capitol Hill internships: the positions are unpaid, there’s a lot of mundane office work like sorting mail and answering phones, and interns are outranked by high school Pages, a very prestigious and competitive (not to mention compensated) program. However, I learned a lot about a wide range of policy areas, including energy and environment, and I really did love the experience.

Imagine my surprise when I found out I had my own cubicle this summer. And didn’t have to share computers with other interns. And didn’t have to make sure the addresses on a thousand form letters were formatted correctly (this happened once or twice a week). Oh, and I’m getting paid, but that’s just the cherry on top!

One of my roles is to support the communications team. This includes working on the email newsletter and providing ideas for web content, advertisements, and infographics. This is where the scientist inside me gets to shine. Thanks to the life cycle assessment course at SPH, I have a good understanding of the interaction between transportation of goods, fuel, and carbon emissions. The tough aspect of choosing what to include in the infographic is what an average reader will be able to understand, and on top of this, the audience has to be considered. Just because I know what a ton-mile is doesn’t mean somebody who sees the infographic will, unless that person works in the freight transport industry.

I also work with SmartWay affiliates, organizations (industry groups, nonprofits, etc.) and businesses (dealerships, leasing companies, and truck stops) that support and encourage participation in the program, by educating members and customers or selling SmartWay technologies. My main project this summer (which I’m happy to say is a week ahead of schedule) is to produce a best practices document for our 200-plus affiliate groups. I’m in the process of interviewing several successful affiliates and identifying common themes revealed during these interviews.

To me, an amazing thing about SmartWay is that it can bring together such diverse people and groups. Of course, their goals are different. Some join the program for the fuel savings, some for the environmental and health benefits, and some to demonstrate corporate social responsibility. Arguably more amazing is that SmartWay works with an industry that wouldn’t be considered friends with EPA by anybody’s standards, and huge players in the freight transport industry happily participate in this voluntary public-private partnership.

Trying out the real world

July 10, 2014 by

charles-zhouSummer is well under way, and it’s been a while since the second-years have left us with their parting advice on this blog. All of the rising second-years are busy at their internships, some of which are blogging here, here, and here.

Before I talk about my internship, I’m going to briefly describe the search. It was tough and frustrating, but also an invaluable learning experience. I didn’t have my first internship offer until almost mid-April, which is really late considering some friends had their internships lined up in October. However, the search most clearly demonstrated the purpose of SPH: to prepare students for a journey into the real world, the first step of which is to find a job. If you happen to be a first-year struggling to find an internship, my advice would be what every second-year told me: just keep looking and everything will be fine in the end. Something will work out.

The search for an internship forced me to act on opportunities quickly, pursue them relentlessly, and create them where they didn’t exist. Throughout the school year, I applied for many positions related to environmental health (many vaguely so) that the career office, professors, and friends let me know about. My first offer was extended by the Ecology Center, a wonderful local nonprofit that does very interesting work. I had sent them an email out of the blue, as internships weren’t advertised on their website, and only really knew about them because several friends had worked there in the past.

The second offer was from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Ann Arbor, which I applied for after a professor forwarded an email. After a month of waiting for paperwork to bounce around various government agencies, I finally got to start last week. My internship is strange in a couple ways. First, I’m working with SmartWay, a voluntary partnership between industry and the EPA. As a regulatory agency, the EPA’s main job is to enforce rules, so the word “voluntary” doesn’t come up very often when discussing the EPA. Second, I’m a person with a science background in a science-based program at SPH, but I’m primarily a communications intern. However, I get to see how science, government, and industry interact, and not many other internships can offer that.

SmartWay’s goal is to reduce emissions from freight movement by encouraging use of technologies and strategies that reduce fuel consumption, leading to cleaner air and fewer greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Most of the program’s efforts are focused on trucking, as it is the primary way that the goods we use every day are transported in the United States. Others include rail, marine/barge, and air, as well as logistics companies and affiliates, groups that support SmartWay. Over 3000 companies and organizations participate in SmartWay, which turned 10 years old back in February. For the rest of us who don’t ship goods, we can buy a SmartWay certified car.

This is my first time working at a job where I spend almost all of my time in an office. I admit that having my own cubicle and phone line makes me feel important, though I’m still getting used to working in a small, boxed-in area. I’m also acclimating to working for a governmental agency, which has its mysteries. However, everybody has been friendly, offering advice and answering my many questions. I’ve learned more about the trucking and transportation industry in the past couple weeks than I ever thought I’d need to know. In any case, it’s good to be trying out the real world for a few months.

That’s enough for now–more to follow in future posts!

8 things I wish I knew before my first job

May 6, 2014 by

andy-mychkovskyDo yourself a favor and read this post. I’ve consolidated years of great advice about success in the workplace from fantastic mentors. Let me share some of their knowledge to you, the future of health care.

Here’s what I wished I knew before my first job:

  1. First impressions matter. Dress to impress. Be happy. NOBODY wants to work with Oscar the grouch. Keep your Outlook inbox organized from the beginning and develop a system that won’t break when the work pace increases. Pay close attention to detail. It won’t matter unless you mess up. Always carry a notepad around to take notes.
  2. Start talking to people who are where you want to be. Get comfortable communicating with people more accomplished than you. Often times, friends tell me stories of awkward informational interviews. Solution? Stop being awkward. They’re human beings too, with all the problems associated. If you run out of substantive material, talk about sports, talk about their career, talk about the weather. At the end, thank them and ask for referrals to other high-performing colleagues.
  3. For the first few weeks of your job/internship, you will be a burden. Just try to be a small one and learn quickly. Attempt everything multiple times BEFORE asking for help. However, don’t just sit there spinning your wheels. If you have a question, make sure you’ve seriously attempted answering it yourself before asking. And always write down the answer so you don’t have to ask again.
  4. ALWAYS print your work first before presenting it to your superiors or clients. You wouldn’t believe how many formatting errors will fly off the page. Also, use spell check. This goes for PowerPoint and Excel too. Yes, Excel has spellcheck.
  5. Be a genuinely kind person. Yes you went to a ‘highly ranked’ graduate school. No you are not automatically more capable. Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. Being an awful person and becoming hugely successful are not correlated. Model your behavior off respectable peers and it will pay dividends. Everyone is part of the promotion process, make sure they’re on your side.
  6. Most bosses preach a work-life balance. They will speak of flexibility in completing assignments or projects. However, some of them would be very impressed if you finished it by tomorrow. Figure out who those bosses are and manage your workload accordingly.
  7. Identify who makes the decisions. In every workplace, there are a few individuals who run the show. Sometimes independent of job title, these players consistently work with the most important clients. Once they’re identified, build relationships with them. Put in extra effort when producing work for them. Their recommendation will become your greatest organizational asset.
  8. If you mess up, learn from it and move on. Everyone makes mistakes don’t be too hard on yourself. We all blow things out of proportion. Even though colleagues may give you a hard time, I guarantee you that no one is thinking about the mistake as much as you are. Think about the reverse scenario. Now get back to work.

Good luck everyone and stay connected on twitter @BookofAndy

Andrew Mychkovsky

8 Things I Learned About Myself (and Other People) at Graduate School

April 23, 2014 by

rachel-rudermanMy last day of graduate school was yesterday. I have one final left. The finish line is so close I can see it. Now is the time that I can reflect on the last two years. What did I learn here? What will I take away from this program? How has it impacted my career?

There’s no doubt I know much more about public health than I did when I started. I’ve gained the knowledge and skills to go into the world and effect change. But as I started thinking about writing this blog I couldn’t help but consider the insights about myself and my peers that I have learned through this process. So, as my own personal “capstone” to the last two years of papers, exams, and learning, here are my 8 lessons learned:

  1. You find your passions through your path.

I thought I knew my interests when I started SPH. Turns out I was wrong. I would have never guessed a year ago that I would be getting the Risk Science certificate or that I would become passionate about health communications. A pre-set agenda of classes and interests you think you want to develop never works out. It’s best to let yourself figure it out along the way.

  1. Sometimes doing your best is not doing your best.

What does this even mean? This might sound counterintuitive, but this lesson has actually helped me so much over graduate school. A classic overachiever, I had a hard time letting go of always being in charge of everything and making sure every detail of every assignment was perfect. In grad school I’ve learned that life is a balancing game. When you’re trying to juggle multiple assignments with work and extracurricular activities, your best might be letting a few imperfections go.

  1. …And sometimes the best work is the hardest work.

I said before that sometimes doing your best is all you can ask, even if the work isn’t perfect. The addendum to that is that when you work your hardest, sometimes you get not only the best results, but the most satisfaction from your work. This semester, I took a course on law and public health. Although our end-of-semester research paper was long and difficult, investing my time and energy into it helped me to really understand the issue and create a final project that I could be proud of.

  1. Group work can be fun work.

Going into SPH, I hated group work. It was annoying and I always ended up taking on all of the responsibilities. The thing about grad school (and real life) is that you really can’t do much on your own. Although group work may still be bothersome and take extra time, learning how to work with others is something that I really appreciate about this program, and have actually learned to enjoy.

  1. Breaks are the best.

Breaks are necessary and important. I like to exercise and cook so if I’m sick of my schoolwork that’s what I’ll do. It makes me feel good and gives me a much needed break from the monotony of staring at a computer.

  1. People will surprise you.

It’s easy to have preconceived notions about that girl in class, or that tough teacher. It’s easy to say “she’s a suck up” or “he’s an unfair grader.” It’s much harder to take the time to get to know these people and realize that they bring value you could have never imagined to your life and work. It’s hard, but it’s worth it.

  1. Make your experiences count.

As pretty much the youngest person in my program, I had a unique perspective throughout this process. Many of my classmates had kids, or had years of work experience. I felt insecure about my lack of real world life experience. Through the last two years, I’ve learned that life experiences and work experiences can be had throughout the learning process, and it’s all a matter of perspective and being able to apply your (albeit limited) experiences to the classroom. Being able to apply what you’re learning, even if it’s only something you’ve read in the newspaper, to your life, makes it easier to understand and more meaningful.

  1. Go outside your comfort zone.

This semester, I took a class I felt was so out of my comfort zone – the first day I really considered dropping out. But I stuck with it – and it was worth it. This course challenged me to think about public health policy issues in a new way. By trying something that didn’t feel easy I learned more and was able to make critical connections about public health that I hadn’t before.

As I go towards my next destination, I will keep these lessons in mind. We all learn different things about ourselves on our educational journeys – and these are mine.

The beginning of the end

April 21, 2014 by

tiffany-yangI turned in my dissertation to my committee on Friday. I had about 3 seconds of elation before the anxiety started to set in again.

Ever since my data meeting, I’ve been ablaze finishing up analyses and interpretation and then writing the dissertation itself. I’m extremely grateful to my Fall 2013 self for starting the process. The days have been speeding by, let me tell you. It felt, and continues to feel,  a bit like self-inflicted isolation. I’m in a confusing place.

When I look back to the beginning of my graduate schooling, I’m amazed at how much I’ve learned: the thinking, the jargon, the process, the politics. But, being in graduate school also makes you realize how little you know; even as you’re constantly imbibing new information, the sheer amount of knowledge out there is increasing at a pace faster than you can consume. When I think about it too often, I get the feeling of treading water in a current moving in the opposite direction. It can be pretty alarming. Good thing fear can be a source of motivation.

Even as I struggle with the “am I really ready? How do I really know?” aspect, I try to remember what the advisor of a fellow grad student (now a legit Ph.D.) said: you’ll never be truly “ready” but, having gained the tools during a Ph.D., the best test of your ability is to go out into the world and try your hand.

Air pollution, admitted students, and aquaculture

April 11, 2014 by

charles-zhouQuick, what do these three things have in common? Actually, nothing besides the fact that they’ve made an appearance in my SPH life in the past couple weeks.

This semester, I’ve been in a community air pollution class studying the sources of air pollution and its effect on communities. However, there are countless talks that people from around SPH and around the University spam us about. One that caught my eye was a talk by Dr. Patrick Breysse from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. His talk was about his work on a problem in many developing countries: indoor cookstoves. Three billion people around the world burn biomass and other solids (wood, coal, “cow chips” or manure) as fuel inside their homes. This generates air pollution levels up to hundreds of times that of the worst smog in Los Angeles within people’s homes, and leads to many health problems. There are many efforts around the world to install cookstoves with chimneys or to use cleaner burning fuels in order to reduce this pollution.

I also made time in my schedule to go to the social hour for Admitted Students Day, which happened a few weeks ago. Admitted students who made the trek out to Ann Arbor mingled with current students at Dominick’s, a popular spring/summer destination near campus known for its sangria. Over drinks and snacks, I talked to admitted students about where they were from and what their interests were, life as a grad student, fun things to do in Ann Arbor (like being a part of the notorious Michigan hockey student section), and the million reasons they should choose Michigan. I also ran into someone I went to high school with who was now considering attending SPH–what a small world. If you’re an admitted or prospective student, please feel free to leave a comment or get in touch with me if you have questions!

And aquaculture? Sustainable Aquaculture is a class I’m excited to take in the fall in the School of Natural Resources and Environment, because I’m still an ecologist at heart. One great thing about SPH is that the degree program allows you to take a lot of electives in other departments and school around the University. In fact, almost half of my credits next semester are outside of SPH because I completed most of my requirements this past year.

Also, happy National Public Health Week!

What I Learned From the Man Behind Ben and Jerry’s

April 4, 2014 by

No, it wasn’t Ben, and it wasn’t Jerry either. Last week I had the opportunity to hear Jeff Furman, a Ben and Jerry’s insider, speak about his role at Ben and Jerry’s , from helping to create its original business plan, to its innovation and social mission development, to selling it to Unilever, and finally to being on the board of its charitable foundation.

What I learned from Mr. Furman is that Ben and Jerry’s is way more than a good ice cream shop – it’s an innovator and leader in how businesses can be profitable (and delicious!) and still manage to treat their employees fairly and give back to their communities. Ben and Jerry’s pays their employees a minimum of $16.30 an hour and donates 7.5% of their pretax profits to charities chosen by their employees.

In public health, we often confront a harsh reality: how do we improve the public’s health and get people to care while making our efforts profitable and sustainable? The Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship initiative at the School of Public Health is trying to do just that – and started this year with a successful Innovation in Action campaign.


Mr. Furman also gave us some tips at his lecture. They include:

  • Constant vigilance: Monitor your work and make sure that your social mission does not fade into the background.
  • Evaluation: Measure your progress! Have a realistic understanding of what you can accomplish and where you go from here.
  • Don’t compromise on quality: If your product isn’t of a high caliber, then your initiative will suffer as well.
  • Integration: Make your social mission a part of your organization – that when people think “Ben and Jerry’s” they will think of a company that gives back.

As Mr. Furman said, “businesses must actively lead in global solutions or else there may never be global solutions.” This is a lesson I think all of us, regardless of industry, can learn.


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