Originally posted on PHSPOT.CA

How having multiple, unrelated interests allows me to have more fun at work

Growing up, I had the vague idea that I would study one thing that would be my passion, and have this one job at this one location, and that would become my career for the rest of my working life. I had just assumed that this path was the only possible one and didn’t question it too much.

Now, in the early stage of my public health career, I keep being amazed by how different this reality is from what I had assumed it would be.  While I am very happy with my job right now, I am not sure where I will be or what I will be working on in five years, which feels quite exciting and reassuring (all these places, people and topics I have yet to know about!), though a little terrifying (will I have a job in 5 years?).

I have an academic background in Health Geography and Environmental Sciences. I graduated last year from my Masters, having done research on the social and environmental determinants of dengue in the Peruvian Amazon. My path from education to research has been one of constant experimentation: I went from not knowing really what I wanted to do at the undergraduate level to identifying little by little courses and professors that I loved; and finding a way to somehow spend more time learning about these topics, with these professors that inspired me at the graduate level.

Having many unrelated academic and work interests made me progressively lose faith in finding my ‘one passion’ that would guide my entire career. Instead, what seems to be working better for me is to trust my intuition on topics that inspire me ﹣ even temporarily﹣ and identify opportunities that allow me to grow, contribute, and learn about a topic for a while. And then make an informed decision about my next step.

In my academic years, I gathered different interests from different experiences in research and in the classroom.  I learned to love medical anthropology, parasitology, research on climate change, and also languages, learning about different cultures, and connecting with people in general.  While I am not sure exactly how I will be able to combine all of these interests in my work life, I have been pleased so far in finding opportunities that allowed me to fulfill many of these simultaneously.

For example, my Masters’ research allowed me to investigate topics related to vector-borne diseases and climate change, while also looking at the ‘human’ side of things. The story of arboviral diseases transmission in tropical countries is so complex and requires keeping an open mind to understand not only the barriers for people to access health care but also how ‘health’ is interpreted differently in different contexts and traditions.  The part of the research I liked the most was being immersed in a different reality, needing to stay empathetic to someone else’s problems and striving to communicate these problems accurately to a wider audience.

The challenge of communicating results

I realized that something I felt strongly about during my graduate training was to be able to share results back to colleagues and stakeholders in Peru, and Canada.  I would feel so unsatisfied when I couldn’t easily communicate results, or when I felt that my audience was phasing out from my academic presentation. I could relate only too well to long overcomplicated research papers and tedious presentations.

That’s when I started to get excited about making visually appealing presentations, and posters.  I was motivated by the challenge of keeping my audience interested and made visuals that could speak for themselves. I used my graduate research as a guinea pig to practice my design skills and developed research and dissemination posters which were well received by academic and non-academic audiences, and that encouraged me to keep refining my design skills.

Communicating research findings through design appealed to me as a way to combine many of my personal interests including public health, communication, and arts. Also, it allowed me to connect with my audience at a deeper level, as I often felt that people are more curious and interested when presented simple and visually pleasing graphics.

Integrating design in public health consultancies

After graduating from my Master’s program, I went on to work as a consultant for the Laboratory team at the CDC’s Centers for Global Health, through the Task Force for Global Health in Atlanta, USA. My main task was to conduct a gap analysis for Zika and other arbovirus diagnosis capacity in Central America and the Caribbean. Our goal for that project was to create a tool to allow for visualization of laboratory capacity in the region in an outbreak situation.

The part of that project I enjoyed the most was to create country profiles on laboratory capacity that included information on the geographic location of public health laboratories and the type of testing available at the national level. I loved sharing these profiles with lab directors and technicians at regional forums because they allowed us to connect easily to specific issues related to lab capacity. And this is partly how I got my next job working as an epidemiology/geography consultant for the Global Disease Detection team at CDC’s Central American office in Guatemala, and later as a consultant for the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA).

These consultancies confirmed that design and communication skills were good compliments to my data analysis/epi knowledge in the public health field.  It allowed me to connect with different actors in the public health field and made my consultant routine significantly more interesting. I didn’t expect that my appreciation for good visuals and infographics would take me along such an interesting start to my career, so I can say it has been such a pleasant surprise.

Key take away points: How can design/communication skills help to advance a career in public health?

  • Having a visually pleasing presentation keeps your audience interested
  • People like to understand what you are working on: if you can communicate that, they will most likely follow-up with thoughts, important questions, and even opportunities
  • ‘Switching things up’ from research to design can keep you interested and motivated in the work you do (at least it does for me)
  • Visual outputs of your work are direct testimonies of your skills; feeling proud and confident about these will naturally lead you to new work opportunities
  • Losing the fear of using a new software (e.g. Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop) feels extremely empowering, and allows you to add a new ‘hard skill’ to your CV

About the author:

Margot Charette is a Health Geographer by training.  She studied Environment (focus: Ecological Determinants of Health) and Health Geography at the graduate level at McGill University. Most of her work so far revolved around arboviruses, evaluating social and environmental determinants of health, and creating visuals that communicate results in simple, efficient ways. Over the last few years, she has enjoyed working for multi-disciplinary teams at the Centers for Disease Control, the Council of Ministers of Health of Central America and the Dominican Republic (COMISCA) and the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA).

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