Cancer, Asthma, and PFAS — Oh my! | #1

Where to begin? For the past 2 weeks, I have been working as an epidemiology intern at the Kent County Health Department in my home city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. I already know the first question you’re going to ask me: what the heck is epidemiology? The official definition is “the branch of medicine that deals with the incidence, distribution, and possible control of diseases and other factors relating to health”– practically, though, it’s studying the amount of disease in a given population, along with the risk factors that are associated with that disease. My specific project this summer will be working on outbreaks of foodborne illness, but so far I’ve just been training and observing. While at first that may sound boring, let me assure you it has been anything but: from collaborating with the CDC to assess the PFAS exposure in northern Kent County, to investigating possible related cases of Legionnaires Disease, my first two weeks have assured me I chose the right place to spend my summer.

And why did I choose this place? Well, I have never taken a class in public health, and I really wanted to gain some experience in the field. What better way to do that than at my local health department? My specific interest was in epidemiology, so I’m especially grateful my project is within that department. I’m hoping this experience will teach me not only the ins and outs of public health, but as my future career plans include attending medical school, I’d like to study healthcare disparities in the population firsthand, as well as the factors that contribute to them and possible solutions. One challenge that I have faced is understanding the (literally hundreds) of acronyms used by employees in everyday communication. PFAS, DEQ, PEATT, NHANES, MDSS, CHIP, REACH…I could go on. It’s almost like a different language, and I’m just starting to grasp the terminology. So far I’ve made a fun game out of trying to guess what each one means before I’m told.

I’ve already had the opportunity to work on creating a summary report for the rate of asthma hospitalizations and emergency department visits by zip code for all of Kent County. I had never used arcGIS before (hey look, another acronym), which is a common program in epidemiology used to map data, but with the assistance of my supervisor I made some nice graphics to include in the report. Overall I’d say my internship is off to a great start, and I’m looking forward to working on more projects throughout the summer! 

A page from KCHD’s Asthma report, which I helped create along with my supervisor and another intern

One thought on “Cancer, Asthma, and PFAS — Oh my! | #1

  • May 24, 2018 at 2:39 pm

    Great post, Nolan! Thank you for an enjoyable and informative read. It’s wonderful to know that your work with KCHD has kicked off with such engaging learning opportunities and that you’re already getting the chance to try out new skills (from public health acronym-speak to arcGIS!). I also really appreciated what you shared about building a holistic perspective on health disparities to carry with you into the medical field. I’ll look forward to reading what you continue to discover about public health, your county, and yourself.


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