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The future of public health: Recent master of public health graduates take on new roles at Carilion

September 5, 2017

Sara Wohlford and Kirsten Simpkins
Left to right: Sara Wohlford and Kirsten Simpkins

Connections with the local community are fueling opportunities for current and past public health students at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech.

Two graduates of the college’s master of public health (MPH) program, an interdisciplinary program grounded in the One Health approach in the Department of Population Health Sciences and delivered in partnership with the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, now work at Carilion Clinic, a not-for-profit health care organization based in Roanoke, Virginia.

Sara Wohlford, of Roanoke, Virginia, graduated with her MPH degree in 2014 and now works as the efficiency and sustainability program manager at Carilion Clinic. Wohlford, who also earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Georgia State University in 2000 and an associate’s degree in nursing from Jefferson College of Health Sciences in 2007, credits the college’s MPH program for working with her to tailor her program of study to her “specific vision” and for preparing her for her current role at Carilion.

Wohlford met with Susan West Marmagas, director of the MPH program, who helped her craft this individualized plan of study. “I was so fortunate to work with forward-thinking advisors and professors in the program who were able to vision how environmental sustainability in health care, public health, and environmental health are all intertwined,” Wohlford said. “They allowed me the space to ultimately use my program work to conceptualize my position and program here at Carilion and work with the organization through my practicum experience and capstone project to write the first-ever sustainability report for Carilion Clinic, demonstrating the links between sustainability in health care and public health.”

The MPH program was the first such program accredited in a veterinary college and allows students to choose one of two areas of focus: public health education or infectious disease. Both emphasize the importance of One Health, which recognizes the dynamic interdependence of human, animal, environmental health, and public health professionals to protect, promote, and improve health. When they graduate, MPH students have gained the knowledge and skills to examine the human, animal, and environmental factors that contribute to the control and prevention of disease and the promotion, enhancement, and maintenance of health.

In her current position at Carilion, Wohlford develops and implements programs to decrease waste and inefficiencies, tracks and reports on environmental sustainability programs, and develops and leads staff education programs. “It was and remains my belief that community health and environmental health are inextricably linked, and minimizing our impact on the environment is implicit in Carilion’s mission — to improve the health of the communities we serve,” she explained.

Through her program, Carilion has achieved a 16.1 percent recycling to total waste rate on the Carilion Medical Center campus; donated 18,500 pounds of medical supplies to international mission programs; replaced Styrofoam cups with eco-friendly cups in Carilion cafes; created the Carilion Environmental Stewardship Council; and signed the Healthier Hospitals Executive Commitment Statement. For her efforts, she was recognized by the National Center for Healthcare Leadership at the 2015 Human Capital Investment Conference and featured in the Virginia Nurses Foundation: 40 Under 40.

Fighting infectious diseases

Kirsten Simpkins, of Floyd, Virginia, also graduated with her MPH degree from the veterinary college in 2014 and now works as an infection preventionist with Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital. Simpkins, who also holds a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Radford University, heard about the MPH program and “immediately knew that I wanted to pursue my graduate education there,” she explained.

Simpkins credits the MPH program for providing her with valuable hands-on experience and research skills. Moreover, the program allowed her to transfer classroom-based knowledge into tangible problem-solving in the local community, like during her youth-targeted skin cancer prevention research project. “The experience allowed me to apply concepts that I learned in class and see first-hand the potential barriers that are involved in conducting research, but also the importance of public health education and how the group was eager to learn,” she explained.

Simpkins chose the infectious disease concentration, which helped prepare her for her current career choice. “I applied concepts that I learned in the MPH program and from the various research projects while in the program to my current career in infection prevention and control. The program opened doors to networking opportunities, which were invaluable during my job search and led to my current position,” Simpkins explained.

As an infection preventionist, Simpkins monitors communicable diseases and multidrug resistant organisms and provides support to prevent and control infectious disease transmission. Simpkins also conducts epidemiologic investigations if a concern for a potential infectious disease outbreak arises. In addition, Simpkins provides education outreach to staff, health care workers, and visitors on proper hygiene, disinfection, sterilization, and isolation practices to prevent the spread of communicable disease.

Prior to her current position with Carilion, Simpkins worked as a registered nurse on a progressive care unit, which provided care to an adult population with various chronic diseases. “During my time working as a RN, I observed a need for health promotion and disease prevention in the local community and became interested in the field of public health, specifically infectious diseases,” said Simpkins.

Success as One Health professionals

Both Wohlford and Simpkins encourage current MPH students to take advantage of the numerous opportunities offered by the program to explore career choices and make valuable connections with the community and potential future employers.

“Some students that I have met with have expressed concern regarding where to start with their career, where to find the job they desire. My advice is to start where you are,” said Wohlford. “I always had an interest in environmental sustainability and was unsure how to find that role within the business of health care. Ultimately when I really opened my eyes and started thinking outside the box, I realized that there were wonderful opportunities for me to develop within the organization that I already worked for and loved.”

Simpkins also urges current students to “take advantage of the opportunities provided by the capstone/practicum experience, which is an excellent way to gain hands-on experience and apply the skills that you have learned over the previous semesters. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and pursue the opportunity to talk to your advisor to gain invaluable insight into different career paths and steps toward reaching your goals.”

And despite their distinctive jobs at Carilion Clinic, both Wohlford and Simpkins credit the uniquely tailored MPH program for developing the skills needed to be successful in One Health-focused professions.

Written by Kelsey Foster, who graduated in May with a master’s degree in communication from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences

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