It wasn't exactly your average high school science project. As a student at Oceanside High in the hamlet of that name on New York's Long Island, Bevin Cohen studied and compared the hand-hygiene practices of neonatal intensive care units in two New York City hospitals.
Today, a decade later, she continues to focus on hand washing and other aspects of hospital infection control, now as a PhD student in epidemiology at Columbia University and staff for a research center combating drug-resistant germs.
"I've been involved with a lot of studies that involved standing around a hospital and looking to see if people are adhering to various guidelines for hand washing or wearing special protective gear when visiting a patient who has an infection," she explains, noting that she watches doctors, nurses, and little kids visiting their grandmother. "You're watching everyone."
These two points in the Bevin Cohen biography—the then and the now—are not unrelated. While by no means the sole cause, that long-ago high school research experience gave her a push toward the professional path she is now on, she says.
It was an experience with a most happy ending. Cohen entered her high school hand-hygiene observational study—which was a component of a larger study by other researchers—in the 2004 Young Epidemiology Scholars (YES) Competition and came away a third-place national winner with a $20,000 college scholarship.
As a youngster, Cohen says, she thought she wanted to be a physician. Her high school experience in epidemiology showed her there was another option:
It illustrated that if you're interested in health care and you're interested in being involved from a research perspective instead of a clinical perspective, there is a role for you.
YES: "The best and the brightest." YES was a competitive scholarship program aimed at encouraging talented high school students to investigate public health issues and ultimately pursue a career in the public health field. Epidemiology—the study of the causes, distribution, and control of disease among populations—is the basic science of public health.
Initiated in 2003 by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and managed by the College Board, YES ran for eight years, attracting the participation of nearly 5,000 high school juniors and seniors—"the best and the brightest from across the country," in the words of RWJF Senior Program Officer Pamela G. Russo, MD, MPH.
YES contestants identified a health problem, gathered data about the problem, and proposed a solution based on what the data showed. Survivors of the initial review process presented their research in person to expert judges from the health field at a three-day Washington conference.
When the annual competitions ended in 2011—a casualty of the nation's economic recession and a change in RWJF's grantmaking strategy in the public health area—a total of 976 YES participants had collected some $3.7 million in college scholarships, ranging from $1,000 for semifinalists to up to $50,000 for each year's top two winners.
But while the program is now over, its impact is not, as the story of Bevin Cohen illustrates. Cohen's experience is one example of how YES could and did make a difference in young people's academic and career choices. It's also evidence of what Russo says is the program's lasting legacy:
YES is definitely going to influence who's going to be in the lead in public health in the next 10 years.
A continuing mentorship. At Oceanside High, Cohen participated in a special curriculum in science research. Students selected an area of interest and, with help from teacher Renee Barcia, found a mentor at an outside institution willing to oversee a summer internship in the chosen field.
Cohen picked infectious disease, searched the Internet for potential mentors, and emailed promising prospects—a process that yielded a positive response from Columbia professor Elaine Larson, PhD, RN. That was the start of what became Cohen's YES project.
It was also the start of a mentorship that would last well beyond one summer. Larson is professor of epidemiology at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health and of therapeutic and pharmaceutical research in the university's School of Nursing. When Cohen entered Mailman to earn a master's degree, Larson became her academic advisor.
She also became Cohen's employer. In another role at Columbia, Larson directs the Center for Interdisciplinary Research to Prevent Infections—a nursing school-based entity that draws from multiple disciplines to conduct research funded by the National Institutes of Health and other outside sources. (Before a name change in early 2012, it was called the Center for Interdisciplinary Research to Reduce Antimicrobial Resistance.)
While earning her master's degree, Cohen worked full time for the center as project coordinator, and she continues in that position as a PhD student. Over the last four-plus years, she and Larson have collaborated on a number of research projects and published papers dealing with infection-control precautions and related topics.
"I have no doubt she will continue to be a star," Larson says of her former summer intern.
Prevention: The draw. Cohen's parents are not in the health care field; her father has a screen-printing business, her mother is a musician. "Every kid rebels, and I think I rebelled by getting multiple degrees," she says.
For undergraduate work, Cohen went to the University of Vermont, where a lingering interest in the practice of medicine was extinguished by first-year biology. "I hated biology," she says. "It was just an awful experience. So I decided I needed to do something else."
That turned out to be public health, although the university had no formal undergraduate program in the field, Cohen says. "I took this great class; it was like intro to epidemiology and biostatics, and it was taught by the most wonderful professor. It was just such a fun class."
Enthused with that academic experience—and helped by that same professor, Peter Callas, PhD, and another in the philosophy department—Cohen proceeded to put together her own public health program, taking enough relevant courses in different departments to major in the subject.
Now in the final leg of her academic journey, Cohen said in a 2012 interview that she is not sure what she will do when she completes it, though she notes she still has several years of training to go. But she does have a good idea of what draws her to epidemiology and public health:
It's funny. Your head gets so far into what you're doing that you forget to back up and look at the big picture. But I think one of the reasons I like this field to begin with is that it's about prevention.
You're not looking for OK, this happened, now we need to treat it. You're looking for OK, what are the reasons something bad is happening, and people are getting sick, and people are dying. And then once we identify those reasons, how can we put a stop in there so it's not going to happen any more.
It's the hope that you can understand what's going on enough to prevent it—I think that is the reason I like this field.