Alumni Spotlight: Jesse Bell, MPH

Jesse Bell, MPH Alumni talks about his practicum experienceJesse Bell, MPH, is a UNE Online alumni of the MPH program and is currently working toward getting his Ph.D. We spoke to him about what compelled him to get his MPH, his experience as an online student including his practicum, and his advice for incoming online graduate students.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, and what encouraged you to pursue your Master’s in Public Health?

For the past 15 years or so I worked in clinical mental health in the ER, seeing patients who are suicidal and homicidal and at general risk to themselves. Over the years I began to realize that the root cause of systemic issues was not being addressed, and I found the situation just getting worse. Patients were experiencing longer and longer wait times, they were spending less and less time in the psychiatric hospitals when they actually needed more, they weren’t getting access to the care that they needed – and there wasn’t anything in place to fix the overall problem that we were seeing.

I decided that I wanted to do something on the macro level, working to better everyone’s existence globally, rather than on a microscopic scale, seeing individual patients. I wanted to start effecting change for a broader array of people, and I decided that public health would be the best option for me.

I started my MPH with the express goal of pursuing my Ph.D. when I graduated. UNE has one of the few CEPH-accredited schools in public health, and attending an accredited school is important for me since I want to obtain a terminal degree. With the online graduate school format, I was able to work full time and go to school full time, so I finished my degree in about 18 months, graduating from the program in 2017.

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Did you feel as though you were in a community while getting your MPH?

All throughout my graduate schooling, I made it a point to form strong connections with my professors. I built relationships by actively emailing them, talking to them, and asking them for advice. I had the good fortune to form lasting relationships with adjunct faculty members Dr. Stevens and Dr. Walsh, with whom I took four to five classes each. In part because of recommendation letters from both of them, I was able to submit a successful application to the University of South Florida Epidemiology Ph.D. program.

Can you share a little about your MPH Practicum experience?

My MPH practicum experience was at the State of Florida Department of Health in the Epidemiology department, which was great because epidemiology was one of my primary areas of interest while I was enrolled in the MPH program. I began by being responsible for disease surveillance duties on a wide variety of infectious diseases from enteric diseases and stomach complaints such as salmonella and botulism, and grew in responsibility to surveillance of rabies cases, lead cases, hepatitis, and meningitis. I also had the opportunity to engage with our grant writer and public health nurses.

I stayed at the State of Florida Department of Health for about a year, after which I was able to parlay my practicum experience into full-time employment.

What is the topic of your dissertation?

My focus for my graduate degree was epidemiology and biostatistics, and I’ve been able to incorporate both of those subjects into my dissertation, which is essentially an algorithm for syndromic surveillance which uses statistical analysis software combined with Google Trends data to track trends using a form of text mining.

For example, when someone Googles “flu symptoms,” that search query may be indicative of the possibility that they are experiencing flu symptoms. If enough people are Googling “flu symptoms” there is a chance that we may be looking at a potential flu outbreak. The software extracts that data automatically and sends an alert when the trends indicate the possibility of an outbreak.

People within the field of public health are already doing this sort of thing now, but we don’t use search engines. Data is generated primarily from reports issued by emergency rooms and hospitals. To some degree, those reports are reasonably accurate, but they don’t give a broader picture of large areas and don’t include people with the flu who may not require hospital care.

What would be one thing you would want a potential student to know before starting this program?

Be prepared to advocate for yourself and don’t be afraid to send a quick email or pick up the phone. If you have questions, you need to ask them.

In general, I found that what I got out of the experience is what I put into the experience, and I found the professors to be a great resource. Every professor I’ve had has been perfectly willing to email me, talk to me on the phone, and connect. I’ve spent hours on the phone with Dr. Stevens over the course of all of my classes with her, and it was the same with Dr. Walsh. You’ll find professors that you like more, and you’ll interact with them more. Ask them the questions that you want to ask.

If you have career goals and aspirations, but you don’t understand what you need to do next, ask your professor. These people have been working in the field for years. You definitely want to tap them as a resource. The worst you could get is a ‘no.’ And I’ve never gotten a ‘no.’

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