Jessica Sexton, MPH


In one sentence, what is public health to you?

Public Health is the epitome of teamwork and the force that will one day see the end of the AIDS epidemic.

What inspired you to apply for an ASPPH fellowship program?

Before applying to the fellowship, I aspired to pursue a PhD in epidemiology (and still do!), but was unsure of whether I wanted to have an academic or federal career and which area of research I wanted to focus on for my dissertation. During the very first semester of my MPH program, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation given by a CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service officer, and she inspired me to pursue a career in infectious disease epidemiology. Smitten with public health, the fellowship seemed like an amazing opportunity to be part of something much larger than myself and to learn more about global epidemiology. The fellowship has since become one of the most profound and rewarding opportunities of my life. My source of inspiration now is the array of dedicated and diverse public health professionals I have the privilege of working with who have backgrounds in international NGOs, U.S. government agencies, academic institutions, and Ministries of Health.

What major project have you had an opportunity to work on during your ASPPH fellowship?

During the fellowship, I have had multiple projects that require me to work collaboratively with other branches within CDC as well as different international partners. Rather than focusing on a single project, this has given me experience that seems similar to that of a career CDC employee who is often responsible for overseeing or advising on a multitude of projects and/or programs. These experiences have added a breadth of information to my public health knowledge and practice as an aspiring professional.

What has been the most rewarding experience during your ASPPH fellowship so far?

As students, we get snippets of the research process. We don’t always get to see a project, program, or intervention from start to finish at the design and development phase to implementation, analysis, and dissemination. The fellowship has presented these opportunities, and I was able to provide meaningful contributions to programs related to HIV drug resistance and antenatal clinic sentinel surveillance activities.

What is the one piece of advice you wish someone had given you when you were starting out in public health?

In the context of data: Rather than trying to learn multiple statistical software packages and developing a basic proficiency at many, to instead focus and become advanced with one. While it’s important to understand how different software programs work – and I certainly have no regrets in learning how to use SAS, STATA, SPSS, and R – I wish I had focused on just one when I was starting out.

What do you think is the biggest challenge that the public health field should be focusing on?

The biggest challenge that the public health field faces is strengthening health systems throughout the world. There are various global measures in place to improve health systems – even policies that extend all the way to individual outreach – that have had profoundly positive effects, but it is an area that still remains a weakness and an area that could desperately benefit from collective improvement. As climate change continues to cause paradigm shifts in economy, disease, and landscape, it is more important than ever that countries around the globe have strong, supported health systems in the event of adverse and unanticipated circumstances.