Future of Public Health: Q&A with Erin Yastrow, BSPH Candidate at Tulane University

Apr 10, 2014, 1:51 PM


Future of Public Health is an ongoing series focused on the emerging faces in the world of public health. We spoke with Erin Yastrow, a Bachelor of Science in Public Health candidate at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, about what helped lead her to the field, her work as a leader in Tulane’s undergraduate student government and where she hopes to go from here.

NewPublicHealth: What encouraged you to pursue a degree and career in public health?

Erin Yastrow: I’ve always been interested in the field of health. I was actually thinking about going into nutrition when I first started looking at undergraduate schools and I had a family friend at one school who had worked in nutrition, but then ended up working at the School of Public Health. When I met with her, she encouraged me to pursue public health with an emphasis on nutrition because it would give me more opportunities. From there, I started my exploration into what public health was and I realized how interesting and fascinating it was and how it was applicable to so many more areas besides just nutrition.

In the meantime, I had also applied to Tulane. I wasn’t really considering it that much because I didn’t know that much about it. My mom was looking through their brochure and told me that they have a great public health program. So, I started looking and I realized how established the Bachelor’s and graduate programs were. They also had an option where you could pursue a combined degree and it was really appealing to me.

NPH: Are you pursuing a Master’s as well?

Yastrow: Not currently, but I’m actually attending Johns Hopkins next year for a Master’s in Public Health. Tulane does have a really great program where you can do a combined degree with your Bachelor’s and Master’s. Part of my undergraduate core, which has now changed, included taking five graduate classes, so I took some classes at that School of Public Health here.

NPH: Within the field of public health, what are your primary interests and why?

Yastrow: That has also sort of shifted as I’ve learned more about public health. As I mentioned, I started out really interested in nutrition and obesity prevention. As I took more electives and did some internships, I became more interested in the similar patterns of risk factors that exist in obesity and other epidemics that aren’t always considered to be health problems, such as violence. That has developed into an interest about addressing inequalities in health and the social determinants, such as socioeconomic status, education and race and how those, to me, are unjust reasons that people are more likely to develop further health conditions.

NPH: Is that something that you’re looking to continue studying at Hopkins?

Yastrow: Yes. I’m going into a program for policy. I’m really interested in policy that encompasses health care, but also poverty, inequality, education and those other social determinants because I really do think that those are central aspects of health that are sometimes not considered in the picture when people talk about health. I think that’s why I’ve grown away from being interested in obesity and nutrition. I think that a lot of the existing legislation focuses on obesity prevention, and while that’s great, I think it forgets some of those more institutional upstream factors that need to be addressed.

NPH: Can you talk a little bit about your work as a leader of the undergraduate student government for the Tulane School of Public Health?

Yastrow: My work with the undergraduate student government has probably been my favorite experience at Tulane this last year. I’ve gotten a lot of really great opportunities to work with the students in the program and I’ve also gotten opportunities to work with people at the graduate school. I’ve been able to serve as a representative for a program that I’m really passionate about. I think if I hadn’t gone through Tulane’s program I’d be at a completely different spot right now and I don’t know what I would be doing in the future. So, it’s been really great to give back to the program.

Our biggest activity last semester was organizing a group of students to go to the American Public Health Association meeting. We applied for a grant and got complete funding for an amazing experience. We were some of the only undergraduates there. I think it was great for Tulane students to encourage the rest of the people there to see that Tulane has this great Bachelor’s program. Not only did we get to share our experience with our peers at home, but we also got to share what Tulane’s doing with the rest of the public health community.

We also organized a peer advising program that was designed to take off some of the pressure from the academic and major advisors that have a lot on their plate. It has been a really helpful way to reach out to freshman and incorporate them more in the program. If they’re a little bit intimidated to talk to their actual advisors about more surface-level questions, this gives them an outlet. We’ve also held events that sort of connect the BSPH program to the MPH program. We had a graduate fair that had different people from each department come and many undergrads that were interested in getting an MPH came and were able to ask questions.

We’re hoping to show not only public health students, but the rest of Tulane, what the public health program is doing at the university, what public health is and how it affects their lives as well.

NPH: What are some of the surprising lessons about public health or public health connections in other areas that you’ve learned in your studies?

Yastrow: One of my favorite courses that I’ve taken was called Violence in the Community, and it was about the homicide rate in New Orleans, which is the highest in the country. I had never thought about the fact that violence could be a facet of public health, but when we looked at it we talked about how it’s very isolated to certain socio-demographic populations. That was just fascinating to me that these inequalities lead to not just diseases such as cancer or heart disease, but also to a predisposition to violence. It’s been a very relevant topic in the news and current events with gun legislation and just looking at it from a public health perspective has totally changed my interpretation of public health, especially realizing how it really does reach all aspects of life and it’s really applicable to other areas than just traditional health.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.