Rural health Epidemiology, with Krysta “McKenna” Luzynski

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In this episode, Sujani sits down with Krysta McKenna Luzynski, a district epidemiologist at the Virginia Department of Health. They discuss gaining perspectives on different healthcare systems around the world, the responsibilities of a rural epidemiologist, and McKenna’s experience working through the COVID-19 pandemic.

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • How McKenna found her way into public health through a youth leadership camp and an interest in healthcare
  • How the pandemic has altered the public perception of public health
  • Why McKenna chose to pursue higher education abroad to gain new perspectives on public health
    • How her experiences abroad impacted her career opportunities back home
    • A brief overview of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s MSc in Public Health program
  • What a day in the life of a rural epidemiologist looks like
    • How working in a rural setting differs from urban settings and what unique challenges may arise
    • McKenna’s experience working through the COVID-19 pandemic and what she has learned from it
  • What skills are essential to succeed in applied epidemiology
  • McKenna’s goals and where she hopes to take her career in the future

Today’s Guest:

A native of Roanoke, VA, McKenna Luzynski is a magna cum laude graduate of Furman University with a Bachelor of Science in Public Health and Spanish and a minor in Latin American Studies. She attended the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine for her Master of Science in Public Health. McKenna has been employed by the Virginia Department of Health as the Senior District Epidemiologist for Southside Health District since October of 2019. Additionally, she serves on the Board of Directors for VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital. McKenna resides in South Hill, VA.

Episode Transcript

McKenna 0:00
If you’re passionate about global health, you’re also passionate about rural health, rural health, it’s just global health in your backyard. So if you loved your global health courses, apply for a rural health job, I promise you, you will get the same satisfaction out of that rural health position that you would have going overseas and working in a global health position.

Sujani 0:29
Welcome to PH SPOTlight, a community for you to build your public health career with. Join Us Weekly right here. And I’ll be here too, your host Sujani Siva, from PH SPOT.

Hi McKenna, and welcome to the PH SPOT podcast. So wonderful to have you here. And I’m really excited to learn about your journey and for our listeners to also hear about it. So thank you again, and welcome.

McKenna 0:59
Thank you. It’s great to be on with you. I’m so excited to share about my journey in public health.

Sujani 1:04
Awesome. The first question and kind of, you know, it really gets us into learning a little bit about you is, how did you discover the field of public health? You know, I saw that you actually majored in public health for your bachelor’s degree. And so it looks like you kind of discovered this field very early on because you decided to do a bachelor’s degree in the field. So what’s kind of your earliest memory of, you know, understanding that there’s a field such as public health, and it’s something that really aligns with my interests? And perhaps I could actually build a career in this area?

McKenna 1:43
Yeah, absolutely. So I grew up in Roanoke, Virginia, which is a pretty good midsize city. And I had the opportunity to attend Roanoke Valley Governor’s School for Science and Technology. And that opened up so many doors for me, and one of those was receiving an invitation in the mail to a summer program. And to be honest, my parents looked at the invitation, and they thought it was one of those, oh, give us your money. And we’ll send your kid to this quote unquote, elite invitation only summer camps for health and medicine. And it was funny because one of the other kids from my school had attended. And that was the only reason that my parents allowed me to go. And so they saved up their money. And they let me attend the 2012 National Youth Leadership Forum on medicine in Washington, DC. And it really wasn’t a waste of money for me, because that was where I was first introduced to this massive field of public health. I always knew growing up that I wanted to go into the field of health care. But I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor. I was a little bit squeamish, I could not handle surgery, I could not handle blood. I was not interested in any of that. I was not designed to be a doctor or a nurse. But I was interested in preventing disease. And I didn’t realize at the time that that really closely aligned with public health, but I went to the summer camp. And one of the days there was essentially an outbreak simulation. And I really fell in love with public health. And so I graduated high school in 2014. I started looking at colleges, my junior and senior year of high school. And around that time, there weren’t a lot of schools that had undergraduate public health programs, but a lot of them did have health sciences programs or similar majors like that. So I ended up going to Furman University, a small liberal arts school in Greenville, South Carolina. And the Health Sciences Department had a lot of courses in public health, a lot of community health courses, Epidemiology, things like that. And while I was there, they actually designed a public health major. So I was able to switch from Health Sciences to public health, which really set me on a path to a career in public health.

Sujani 4:36
Maybe you mentioned this, but what was the pull for you to want to do this leadership summer camp because it sounded like your parents weren’t too convinced just yet, but like, what was it about it because you weren’t interested in medicine and the card had the word medicine on it. Were you just like a curious child or did you know that there was more than medicine that was going to be kind of taking place at this summer camp?

McKenna 5:00
So it touted all of these opportunities to visit laboratories and visit hospitals. And I think it was my curiosity to see what was in healthcare beyond medicine. I had started exploring other health care careers, like pharmacy or athletic training, and I wanted to see what else was out there. And I thought that that summer camp would be a good way to find that out.

Sujani 5:39
That’s incredible experience at such a young age, I feel.

McKenna 5:43
It was really eye opening. And I’m so glad I went, I’m so glad I had that opportunity. And I so encourage youth and kids to take every opportunity. In my area now, we have a summer Health Careers camp for high schoolers. And I just recently had the opportunity to go and share about my career there. And it was really one of those full circle moments where I had attended one of those camps. And it inspired me to pursue a career in public health. And then now I just have the opportunity to share about public health to another group of high schoolers. So who knows?

Sujani 6:23
Yeah. What was the- the feedback that you collected from the high school students? Like, were they aware of public health? Because you know, the pandemic had just happened? Because I remember, like, doing a few of these, yeah, like high school talks, and all of those students just swarmed over to the medical professionals know, I was one public health person. And I wanted to listen to me, and this was like, years ago, but I’m curious, you know, now that the pandemic has taken such a front row seat in like the public’s eye, how was kind of the the reception for you, when you went and talked about public health?

McKenna 7:00
I definitely agree that the pandemic has opened up the world of Public Health to more of the public eye. But I think it is challenging now that that’s the only perception of public health yet the public has, we do so much more in public health than just outbreaks and pandemics. And I was trying to give sort of the broad overview of what we do just that the health department and the kids were telling me, Wow, you do all of that at the health department? Even beyond the health department, we do so much more in public health than just that, all of the programs that we offer here at the health department between environmental health and WIC and nursing, and epidemiology. And that’s just only a small portion of what public health is as a whole. And I think that the public has a very limited perception right now, because of COVID. So I do think that it helps the general public become aware that public health exists and is so important, but has also brought a very limited perception of what public health actually is.

Sujani 8:21
Yeah, there’s definitely like more creative marketing, we have to do in public health to tell the story a little bit better, right?

McKenna 8:29

Sujani 8:30

McKenna 8:31
And the pandemic has also hurt us, at least at the health department. Because we’ve had to be more of the regulatory authority. When that’s really not who we want to be.

Sujani 8:46

McKenna 8:46
We want to be the helpers, we want to be the educators. And when we’ve had to be the regulators, that’s hurt our relationship with the community. So we are really trying to rebuild those relationships and those connections and those partnerships in the community now. And that is our number one focus, our number one priority as we move out of COVID-19.

Sujani 9:09
Yeah, no, that’s so true that that rebuilding effort is so important. And it’s going to take I think, again, some creativity to gain some more trust from the public so that we can kind of go back to doing some of the work that we were already doing, and for them to see that in the light that we’d like them to see it.

McKenna 9:30

Sujani 9:31
Yeah. Okay, so you- you go to this great program at Furman University, you graduated in 2018. And then you decide to continue studying in the field of public health. Yeah, tell us about that decision and kind of what came next for you after you graduated?

McKenna 9:51
Yes, I graduated, like you said in 2018, with a Bachelor of Science in Public Health and Spanish and I minored in Latin American Studies. And so I had that foundational degree in public health. But I knew that most jobs still require a master’s degree in public health. I had studied abroad in undergrad. So I already had this sort of unique perspective of, wow. People in other countries do public health a lot differently than we do, particularly in countries that have socialized medicine. There’s such a different approach to preventive medicine, because the country is value, not having people in the hospital and not paying for those people in the hospital. So to get that different perspective on public health, I decided that I would go abroad for my master’s degree, I applied to several programs in England and France, and I ended up deciding to attend LSHTM, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine for my Master of Science and Public Health. It was a year long program, and I loved it. I learned, honestly, just as much from the other people attending LSHTM, as I did from the program itself, there were so many different people from different countries with different backgrounds and perspectives. It was amazing to hear about their stories and their experiences that they brought to the table that yes, I learned so much in the courses. But I also learned from my colleagues and my peers.

Sujani 11:43
Yeah, I’m not sure. And but I’m assuming that the school probably attracts a very like, diverse group of students as well. Right? So you’re learning about the different countries.

McKenna 11:56
we in our program had students from more than 81 different countries.

Sujani 12:01
Wow, that’s incredible.

McKenna 12:03
You learn to work with people who don’t think like you who don’t look like you who don’t have the same opportunities that you do. And that’s really what the real world is all about taking these different people in these different perspectives and putting them in a group and figuring out how to solve a problem.

Sujani 12:26

McKenna 12:26
So yes, the coursework was incredibly valuable. But so it was that sort of real world experience of learning how to work with people.

Sujani 12:38
Yeah. You know, when you were thinking about studying abroad, did at any point, like, were you worried that I would feel lost, and not know how to do public health in the US, because that’s where I wanted to come back and work or that wasn’t a concern for you?

McKenna 12:57
I definitely recognized that there might be some challenges of things that I maybe wanted to implement, or had seen done, that I knew could be done, but would find that there would be barriers here in the US just because of the system. And just the hurdles that we have to jump through just the the red tape that exist within our structure. But I also think that it was valuable coming in with that different perspective, having another health system that I’ve worked with it and having another structure that I’ve studied under. And so when I started interviewing for jobs here, I told them plainly, you know, I don’t have the same experience that other people might, but I have different experiences. And I have a unique take on things. And I think that I can bring something valuable to your team that other people might not be able to. And evidently it worked. Because I got hired.

Sujani 14:11
That’s such a great way to look at it. Like I know, when I was kind of considering different schools or even, you know, for future education, I always bounce back the idea between do I want to stick around in Canada and kind of, you know, learn the system here, because that’s where I see myself building my career or now that you’ve given me this new perspective, I think I’m going to be exploring programs in a very new perspective. So thanks for that.

McKenna 14:39
It’s, I think, always valuable to be able to compare systems. What do they do in this state? What do they do in this country? How can we take the best things that everybody has done, and implement those ideas here?

Sujani 14:59
Absolutely. Were there other I guess factors that you considered when you were looking for a master’s level program? You- you talked about, like wanting to study abroad. And that was kind of just a personal decision. But any any other factors you were looking at just for any of our listeners who are, you know, debating between various different schools, maybe you know, your thought process might be able to help them out a little bit?

McKenna 15:24
Yes, absolutely. One of the reasons that I wanted to go abroad was just for practical purposes, I had an undergraduate degree in public health, and a lot of mph programs in the US, the students don’t have a BS in public health when they come in. So the first year in the two year program is a lot of the same courses that I had already just completed. So when I was looking at programs abroad, they were one year as opposed to two years, and a lot of them were more specialized. So they didn’t have a lot of those foundational intro to public health, Intro to epidemiology, intro to environmental health courses that I had already just completed. So I could get done in one year without having to duplicate a lot of the courses that I took. And it would be a cheaper program, than having to take a two year program in the US taking a lot of the courses that I had already taken.

Sujani 15:24
Okay, very, very practical. How was your experience at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine kind of, you know, apart from having such a great cohort of students to learn from, you know, the coursework was was amazing. And I assume that you were there in person because you wanted to go abroad. Yeah, for anyone exploring this school, and maybe even considering going there in person. I know they do offer an online option as well. But yeah, maybe if you could tell us a bit about the school and the program just for background?

McKenna 16:59
I loved my experience, there are a lot of different masters degrees to choose from, depending on what your specific interest is. They have courses in epidemiology, my course, just the straight up Master’s in Public Health, masters in infectious disease control. So really, if you have a particular interest, you’ll be able to find a master’s degree that matches that. It is a taught program. But one thing that differs from LSHTM, to a lot of degrees in the US is that you don’t have graded assignments throughout the term. For instance, the entire first term, your whole grade comes from your one paper at the end of the entire year. So that is a huge difference from a lot of our undergraduate degrees in the US. So that’s definitely something to keep in mind. If you’re somebody who likes to have a lot of cushion in your grades, so that if you have one bad grade, it doesn’t completely mess everything up. You really have to be diligent with studying for those final papers. Because it is a Master of Science degree, it does require a project or research project that results in a 10,000 word essay. So if you’re not big on research papers, probably not the school for you. But there’s so much flexibility within the master’s degrees in terms of being able to pick courses, pick classes that are really designed for whatever your interest is, I had an interest in environmental health and environmental epidemiology. So I specialized in environmental health, I was able to take environmental health policy, designing disease control programs, modeling of infectious diseases, which is such a useful skill, particularly when the pandemic hit, that I could not have asked for a better program.

Sujani 19:04
That’s a great segue into kind of what you’re up to now. But I think before we jump into that, was there anything kind of that we missed about your your experience, just completing the master’s level program and public health before we jump into what you’re doing today?

McKenna 19:22
No, I’m happy to talk about either my undergraduate program at Furman or my graduate degree at LSHTM. If anybody has any questions about either one of those programs, please feel free to reach out to me. I loved both of them. And I’m always happy to answer questions about either one.

Sujani 19:43
Oh, thanks for that. I’m sure you will get some some messages for sure. Okay, so you- you graduated in 2019. And what a great time for an epidemiologist to graduate. So tell us about graduation and what came next.

McKenna 20:01
I finished my program in September of 2019. I moved back to Virginia. And I think it was two or three days after I came home. I interviewed for a job at the health department. And I was a little bit jet lagged. But I managed to interview well enough to be offered the position. And I started in October of 2019. Now the funny thing is, they told me that this particular district, Southside health district, was known as the quiet Health District. Rural southern Virginia, borders North Carolina, two lakes, beautiful area. But they told me, you know, I hope you have an unlimited data plan, because you don’t get a lot of really interesting cases, you’ll do a lot of tick borne illnesses, a lot of hepatitis, a lot of enteric, diseases, salmonella, Campylobacter, things like that. But aside from that, it’s not really anything too interesting.

Sujani 21:11
It’s kind of good for public health. Right?

McKenna 21:13

Sujani 21:13

McKenna 21:14
An exciting day was the flu outbreak, and then COVID hit. And unfortunately, COVID hit us really hard really early, I was optimistic at first that we would be spared. Because we are so rural, we have about 43 people per square mile. But because we are in this picturesque area of Virginia, a lot of people retire here. So we do have several nursing homes. And we were hit with two large nursing home outbreaks early on in the pandemic. So, right at the beginning of the pandemic, we had some of the highest case rates and fatality rates per capita in the Commonwealth of Virginia. And that was rough. It was a rough time here. We didn’t have the supplies that we needed. We didn’t have the staff that we needed as many others. We were sort of paddling along as best we could. There were holes in our belt, we didn’t really have an OR we were just doing the best that we could.

Sujani 22:29

McKenna 22:29
But it was hard when we lost our first patient who was younger than my parents. That’s when it kind of hit me. Oh, no, this is- this is serious. And then we had the first adolescent death in the Commonwealth of Virginia. And that is something that will stick with me for forever, having to review that medical record, and determined that it was indeed a COVID-19 death.

Sujani 23:06

McKenna 23:07
And communicating with the family. And knowing that that family was going to be hounded by the media. It was horrible. So COVID has been pretty much what we’ve been doing ever since then, now with a sprinkle of monkey pox. But trying to keep afloat COVID, monkey pox, and all of our other cases, has been the challenge since then. Field epidemiology is very different than academic epi. We don’t do a lot of literature reviews. So we don’t do a lot of statistical analyses. We do a lot of interviews, we do a lot of communication with families. And we do a lot of education. And particularly in a rural area. We wear a lot of different hats. So I’ll be out in the community giving presentations. And I’ll be managing the social media pages. And I having a degree in Spanish will be interpreting for our vaccination clinics. So it’s just a lot of different things depending on the day, but Southside is no longer a quiet district.

Sujani 24:31
Nope. Like okay, now that you’ve been in this role for three years, when you think back to being like fresh out of school, starting this new job as a district epidemiologist in a kind of rural part of the United States. You think about how you handle the situation in like, literally like the first six months of your job, your first job out of school, you’re hit with the pandemic, which I hope we don’t have to go through again in our lifetime. How do you think you would have reacted if the pandemic what happened now, after having three years? So, like, what are some lessons learned that you think about and maybe reflect on?

McKenna 25:15
I think the biggest one that I’ve learned throughout the pandemic, is that we are public health practitioners, we are here to protect the public’s health. We are not here to be political pawns. We are not here to do anything, but protect the public’s health. At the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve really tried to balance trying to keep everybody happy, trying to think about the economic interests of businesses of individuals. I tried to do everything I could for everybody, and all of their interests. But that’s not my job. My job is to protect the public’s health. And I cannot make any decisions. I cannot do anything if it doesn’t protect the public’s health. And I go to sleep at night, okay, with what I’ve done that day, if I know that what I’ve done is rooted in evidence, nd if it protects the public’s health, and that sounds so simple, but when you are working in an environment where you have external and internal pressures, that make it difficult to think about your mission and your vision, as an agency, and as an individual, staying true to that notion of my job is to protect the public’s health can sometimes be difficult. So just always keeping that ingrained. And keeping that at the core of everything that we do. That is the one thing that I have learned throughout this pandemic. And what I would have focused on from the beginning, had the pandemic started today.

Sujani 27:23
When do you think you had that realization?

McKenna 27:27
It was early in the pandemic, it was actually a specific event, there was a wedding that was scheduled to take place right after the governor had issued another round of executive orders to limit capacity restrictions or something along those lines. And I was trying to work with the owner of the establishment to figure out how this poor bride could still have her wedding. And all I wanted to do was make the bride happy, make the business establishment owner happy. And try to figure out some way that everybody would win. But it wasn’t possible. Not everybody wins in a pandemic. But the best case scenario was that everybody stayed safe and stayed healthy. And it was my job to make sure that that happened. And yes, that meant disappointing the business owner, and yes, that meant disappointing the bride. But it would have been even worse, if the wedding had gone on. And somebody had gotten sick or somebody had died. And so I realized there are days that I’m not going to be able to make everybody happy. And I’m gonna disappoint people, people are going to be mad at me, and that’s fine. But if I can keep your family member alive, I’m okay with that.

Sujani 29:05
Yeah, yeah. That’s kind of the similar, I guess, reflections I had less so at a professional level, but more on a personal level, you know, just communicating the public health measures to family members. And obviously, not everyone loving to public health mandates.

McKenna 29:23
I can be your bad guy. You can be mad at me all you want.

Sujani 29:26

McKenna 29:27
I will do my job and I will do my best to protect this community.

Sujani 29:34
Yeah, I thought it was interesting. And I don’t know how you feel where we had these professional roles. And it was really hard to pull away from that role. After like, you know, nine to five I’m sure you weren’t working nine to five. But you know, when you came home and you’re talking to family members, like you still had that public health person protecting the public hat on and it was hard for you not to say things in their personal lives. And I don’t know if you struggled with that and still do, just kind of separating that and being McKenna after hours, and then going back to being that district EPI, during work hours.

McKenna 30:16
Yes. 100% yes, we are on call 24/7. If my phone rings, I answer it. And I’ve taken calls at 11pm, I’ve taken calls at 4am. I’ve taken calls at 6am. And when you’re on call 24/7, it does make it so difficult to turn off district epi McKenna, and just be me. And especially during the height of the pandemic, when there were restrictions in place, and people felt like I was going to turn them in for not wearing a mask or turn them in for having 11 people at a gathering when the maximum should have been 10. People would send me Facebook messages to ask me questions. And of course, I’m going to respond. That’s, that’s my job. But it’s also who I am as a person. And when those two things are so intertwined, it’s very difficult. And it’s also very exhausting to turn that off. And I have an absolutely wonderful boss. And since the beginning, he has encouraged us to take time off to completely shut down, turn everything off, to try to shut everything out. But even then, even when I go on vacation, I take my laptop, I take my work phone, it just on the off chance that oh, what if something happens? What if now I get a monkey pox case while I’m on vacation? Who’s gonna handle it? It’s just me.

Sujani 31:59
Yeah, yeah.

McKenna 32:01
So it’s, it’s challenging.

Sujani 32:04
Yeah, it is. It is. You know, when you mentioned that you’re on call 24/7. That kind of reminded me that, you know, one of the topics that you were really interested to talk about is being a rural epidemiologist, and I think we’ve heard bits and pieces of your role, but I’m wondering for like our listeners who may be interested, you know, I do want to become an epidemiologist, but maybe after hearing McKenna’s story, I’d like to be an epidemiologist in a rural part of where I live. Is there more you can offer kind of, you know, a day in the life of what that looks like now that we’re, you know, two and a half years into the pandemic? Yeah, maybe if you could shine a bit more light on on your role?

McKenna 32:47
Yes, of course. I promise that it is not all doom and gloom. I absolutely love my job. And one of the best parts of being rural epidemiologist is that no day looks the same. I wake up, I check my email, I look and see what kind of cases that we have going on today. Virginia is one of the states that participates in the NBS system. We have beds the Virginia electronic surveillance system. That’s where we receive all of our individual lab reports and case reports, I look and see what we have for the day, what’s most important to follow up on I send medical records request, I review medical records to see if the cases meet the case definition. And then I call patients talking with patients is one of the best parts of my job. In a rural health district, we tend to have a lower health literacy level than in more suburban health districts. So one of the best parts of my job is being a health educator, being able to provide education to the patients, and also being able to educate the community as a whole, particularly when we have cases of whatever illness in children and you’re speaking to their parents, those parents become your best advocates. There’s nothing more powerful than a mother who is trying to figure out what is wrong with her child. And when you are working together as a team, and you have identified the potential cause or the potential route of transmission. And you have made an ally in that mother. She is going to help you spread the word in your community. So working with parents, working with the community, that’s awesome. I love getting to go out and do presentations to our schools or our long term care facilities to our organization that serves older adults, to our behavioral health facilities. I love talking to people. I love providing that education. We also follow up on outbreaks, we collect specimens to confirm the etiologic agents. If we suspect that an illness is making people sick, we want to know what it is, how are we going to do that? We have to collect some specimens, we answer questions all the time, people call the health department for everything. And we do our best to be able to provide the answers without having to send them to another person. So we do our best just to provide excellent customer service. We have difficulties with connectivity, and the transportation here. So we do our best to get people the services that they need. We also run clinics here at the health department. So that’s not something that I personally am involved with. But it’s just an awesome service that we offer. So in terms of a day in my life, that’s pretty standard. But it changes every day. So I’ll be doing a site visit tomorrow. It’s always changing. But I think most importantly, I work with a great group of people. We are so small, that we have to depend on one another. And so we have to form those close relationships with our co workers to be able to survive. We have many lifers here. We have people here who have been here for 30 plus years. And clearly they love their job, or they wouldn’t have lasted that long. So it’s a great place to work.

Sujani 37:01
Yeah, sounds like it. I think when you were initially telling me that you were also the one doing social media, and you’re going out into the community and teaching, in my head that’s like a dream come true. Because I love small teams, I love kind of being able to do a little bit of everything. And I’m assuming you’re the only epidemiologist on the team.

McKenna 37:21
I am for right now. We are currently trying to hire a deputy epidemiologist. So fingers crossed that I will have a teammate here soon.

Sujani 37:33
Very cool. And how big is the team otherwise in like a small area like this?

McKenna 37:39
Yes. So Southside Health District covers three counties. So we have three offices, but the office that I primarily work out of, we have about 10 staff here in the office, between clerical environmental health, nursing, WIC, and myself.

Sujani 37:58
Okay. When you kind of think about all the all the different things that you do and what you’ve been doing for the past three years, and reflect back to your masters training as well as your bachelors training. Do you ever think, okay, like, I’ve gotten some great skills, and I learned a lot. But I really wish like, maybe I had a bit more training in this area. And you know, you know, I wish I had these additional skills to just do this job a little bit better. Were there, you know, instances like that, or maybe you have them now?

McKenna 38:32
I think the most important skill required for this job is the ability to talk to people and the ability to listen to people. So we always think about epidemiology requiring those technical skills, the- the math and the statistics and things like that. But I was so fortunate at Furman, that they really designed the program in mind of thinking about more of those soft skills and requiring courses, for instance, in psychology, and requiring community service, and requiring all of those more soft skills and in that extra stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily think, Oh, what do I need this for epidemiology? Why do I need this for public health? But being a field epidemiologist I see now, oh, my goodness, that’s actually the most important thing that I gained from my public health program is the ability to empathize, the ability to communicate, and the ability to listen and hear what’s not being said. And I will forever be grateful for all of those reflection journal entries that I had to write that I complained about at the time, but are so valuable now. And all of those community service hours that I thought, Huh, I wonder why we have to do this as public health majors, but nobody else has to do this. And all of those little extra things that we did as public health majors, they made a world of a difference. And they are so helpful in my career now.

Sujani 40:20
Yeah, it’s almost like, you know, if you know, epidemiology is kind of the stream or specialization you want to go into, I think another kind of next step individual should reflect on is where you want to practice epidemiology. Because, you know, if you’re wanting to stick around and research and be in that academic setting, I could see how, like really specializing in like, the statistical analyses and knowing all those software is going to be like, super helpful. But if you think, okay, I want to go to applied epidemiology work in the field, I think some of the skills that you’re talking about are quite important, and finding ways to really nurture those skills and improve on them is going to help you. So it’s not only about okay, what stream do I want to go into when it comes to public health? But where do I want to work? What setting do I want to work in and kind of like doing that assessment is also going to be helpful.

McKenna 41:17
I couldn’t agree more.

Sujani 41:18
Did you always know that you wanted to do applied field epidemiology in a rural setting? Or is that something that just happened for you?

McKenna 41:27
I did not. I really stumbled upon this position. To be honest, I wanted to work in state government, because I wanted the health insurance benefits. And this was an open position. And I applied for it not knowing where Mecklenburg County was, I read the job description. And it was describing the beautiful location and the stunning lakes. And I was like, oh,

Sujani 41:56

McKenna 41:57
I like that. That sounds nice.

Sujani 41:59

McKenna 42:00
And so I applied, and I figured, well, hey, if I don’t like it, I can stay here for a couple years, get some training, and then apply somewhere else. But I just have really fallen in love with rural health, and the people here, and I’m so passionate about health disparities, particularly when it comes to rural health, and closing some of those gaps and making sure that when we think about Virginia, there are two, Virginia’s metropolitan Virginia and rural Virginia, making sure that our rural Virginia does not get left behind.

Sujani 42:44
No, that’s so important. And very inspirational. I think, you know, like just thinking about some of the people I’ve come across, I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to or even learned about what you know, working in a rural area entails. And I think just hearing the great work that you’re doing and the passion that you have for it, I really hope it inspires other individuals to consider like, intentionally searching for opportunities in rural areas, because I’m sure it’s similar to rural Virginia, there are many, many, many more regions around the world that could definitely use that sort of passion.

McKenna 43:20
Yes, I always tell people, if you’re passionate about global health, you’re also passionate about rural health.

Sujani 43:27

McKenna 43:28
Rural Health, it’s just global health in your backyard. So if you loved your global health courses, apply for a rural health job, I promise you, you will get the same satisfaction out of that rural health position that you would have going overseas and working in a global health position.

Sujani 43:47
Yeah, no, that’s, that’s great advice. In talking about advice, you know, if you were to offer additional advice or tips to a new grad, a public health student, or someone just kind of starting off their career, what’s something that you can offer based on your experience and what you’ve reflected on to date?

McKenna 44:10
Try it. Whatever the position is. Try it. You can stay for a couple years, get some experience, figure out what it is that you really want to do. But in the meantime, you might just realize that you love it. Talk to people.

Sujani 44:29

McKenna 44:29
Figure out what they’ve done. See if if that might be something that you’re interested in. But at the end of the day, just go for it.

Sujani 44:40
And like everything is reversible. If you don’t like it, you can always go back to your hometown or wherever you’re coming from and try something else.

McKenna 44:49

Sujani 44:50
Yeah. So McKenna, kind of just thinking about the future in your public health career. What are some things that you’re excited about? Or maybe goals that you’re working towards?

McKenna 45:02
Yes, hopefully by the time this airs, I will have heard back from a couple of DrPH programs that I’m in the process of applying to, I am pursuing DrPH, because I’m interested in becoming a local health district director that was previously a position in Virginia that was restricted to physicians. But I am interested in becoming a health district director because I think that I can really do some good work in rural Virginia by becoming health district director. And I’ve loved my time as an epidemiologist, and I will continue to be an epidemiologist. But I think that’s the next step for making a difference in my community, effecting real change and promoting public health in rural Virginia. And so I’ll be hopefully pursuing a DrPH to help me achieve those goals.

Sujani 46:09
That’s excellent. That’s so wonderful to hear. And I, you know, just based on the short time I’ve been able to speak with you, I think, your passion and just everything you’re giving to Virginia, I think you’re capable of doing some great work as a- as a district- as a director.

McKenna 46:27
Yes, hopefully.

Sujani 46:29
Oh, awesome. No, this is awesome. And thanks for sharing that with us. I going to send you all the positive vibes and wishes for that. And once you do get in, we’re definitely going to have you back on the podcast to tell us a bit about how your DrPH program is going. And then once you become the director, we’ll have you on again. So-

McKenna 46:50
Sounds like a plan.

Sujani 46:52
The goals have been stated here. So we’re here to make them come, come live.

McKenna 46:58

Sujani 46:59
Thanks so much McKenna, this has been such a wonderful and inspirational talk with you and just kind of, you know, reigniting some of the passion that I’ve had. I think that’s the best part of having these conversations with other public health professionals that I don’t think I’ve I would, you know, get the chance to meet in my professional career. And this platform makes it possible. So very grateful to have chatted with you and to hear about your story.

McKenna 47:24
Thank you. It was a pleasure to chat with you today.

Sujani 47:30
Hey, I hope you enjoyed that episode. And if you want to get the links or information mentioned in today’s episode, you can head over to And we’ll have everything there for you. And before you go, I want to tell you about the public health career club. So if you’ve been looking for a place to connect and build meaningful relationships with other public health professionals, from all around the world, you should join us in the public health career club. We launched the club with the vision of becoming the number one hangout spot dedicated to building and growing your dream public health career. And in addition to being able to connect and build those meaningful relationships with other public health professionals, the club also offers other great resources for your career growth and success, like mindset coaching, job preparation, clinics, and career growth strategy sessions in the form of trainings and talks, all delivered by experts and inspiring individuals in these areas. So if you want to learn more or want to join the club, you can visit our page at And we’ll have all the information there. And you know, as a space that’s being intentionally curated to bring together like minded public health professionals who are not only there to push themselves to become the best versions of themselves, but also each other. And with that, I can’t wait to see how it this is going to have a ripple effect in the world as we all work together to better the health of our populations and just have immense impact in the world. And I hope you’ll be joining us in the public health career Club.


About the Show

PH SPOTlight: Public health career stories, inspiration, and guidance from current-day public health heroes

On the show, Sujani sits down with public health heroes of our time to share career stories, inspiration, and guidance for building public health careers. From time to time, she also has conversations with friends of public health – individuals who are not public health professionals, but their advice and guidance are equally important.

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