Jessica (Mader) Cavazos
Year of Graduation: 2008
Current Position: Health Educator, Newborn Screening Program and Public Health Laboratory, Minnesota Department of Health, St. Paul, MN
Please give a brief description of your current position/location and what it entails.
As a health educator, I find ways to explain complex health or scientific issues to a lay audience. In my role, I develop materials for new and expectant parents as well as providers, create social media posts, write articles for provider publications, and develop new initiatives to educate target audiences. A majority of my time is devoted to developing education materials. I either gather information through research or receive information from a subject matter expert and then rewrite and reformat more technical language into life stories or informational articles that are more easily understood by our readers. In addition to writing and editing, I am involved with graphic design. Between illustrating graphics, photo editing, and creating layouts for our annual reports, I have many opportunities to use my creative skills.
Problem-solving skills are essential in my position as co-lead of the State’s InDesign accessibility group. By law, all of our electronic documents must be accessible. For example, documents must be able to be read by a screen reader so people who are blind are able to access the information. I discovered that the training and resources available for creating accessible documents in InDesign were inaccurate or incomplete, so I started working on my own to develop methods to make documents accessible. This evolved into a team with representatives from several State agencies working together to develop best practices for accessible document design.
What path did you follow to arrive at your current job?
As with most CSB/SJU graduates, my career (in health education/science communication) is not where I started on my path, but in fact, where I feel that my path has led me. After graduation, I spent six years as a research scientist at the Mayo Clinic with the intent to earn my Ph.D. However, after a move to a research lab at the University of Minnesota, I discovered that research wasn’t enough for me. The day-to-day benchwork wasn’t as thrilling to me any longer. I loved telling people about the research I was doing and explaining why it was important or why I found it so fascinating.
I had worked as a Heath Advocate during my time at St. Ben’s, and decided to try something similar to that when I left research. I spent almost two years designing health promotion programs for a private company (where I missed science too much) before finding my place at the Minnesota Department of Health. I’m fortunate because I’m in the Public Health Laboratory, and work with scientists every day. This position has provided me with the right balance of science and communication to satisfy my need for knowledge and my passion for sharing that knowledge.
What advice/suggestions would you have for students who might be interested in your career?
My advice for students interested in a career in health education is very similar to the advice I give to those interested in pursing a career in medical research: take every opportunity you can to learn outside of the classroom. Read research and public news articles, as well as books that expand your knowledge. You will find it amazing how much you can learn on your own time by just keeping your eyes and ears open to possibilities. Follow something in which you are passionate but don’t be afraid to change midcourse. Stressful, certainly, making what may seem like a drastic career change, but you may be surprised how well a new position fits. Even though it was my decision to change careers, I fought it. I remember telling my fiancé (now husband) that I was a scientist, and that if I left research I was betraying my education and all the dreams I had for myself. He helped me understand that it wasn’t so extreme. I still had the knowledge I gained at St. Ben’s and the skills I learned at the bench, I would just be using them in a different way to promote science. He was more right than I’ve ever admitted to him.
What skills are important in your field?
I can never overstate the importance of the passion for learning. In any field, the most successful people are those whose quest for knowledge is never sated. Times and methods change, if you don’t keep abreast of new ideas, methods, news, you’ll be left behind. Being a life-long student doesn’t have to mean that you sit in a classroom for your entire life. However, if you strive to learn, you can find ideas in anything; books, lectures, TED Talks, articles, and on and on and on. One of my greatest strengths in research still serves me well as a Health Educator: the need to learn about things outside of my field and discover how I can apply them toward my work. Ideas come from everywhere and anywhere; you just need to look.
More tangible skills include: communication (strong writing and comfort when speaking to different audiences), an eye for layout and design, and critical thinking.
What is the most satisfying/rewarding part of your job? Most challenging?
The most satisfying part of my job is completing a project, especially if it’s something we haven’t done before. I like seeing my work go out to the wider world. Every day is an opportunity for me to explain to people why what we do in the Public Health Laboratory is important—and in a broader sense, why science is so important.
The most challenging part of my job is juggling projects and competing priorities. I work with several subject matter experts, all of whom (understandably) want their project to be my number one priority. This is complicated by the fact that priorities can change very quickly, especially when you work in the public sector. A bill can be introduced or a major public health emergency could occur, and suddenly you to need to move what you were doing to the back burner and be ready to respond to the new need.
What activities/experiences were helpful at CSB/SJU (and elsewhere) in preparation for this career?
My role as a Health Advocate provided me with great experiences when it comes to health education and program development. Health education isn’t exactly a number one priority for college students or the general public when there is so much else competing for their time. Creating ways to provide people with even a little bit of information that they can understand and embrace, that’s a skill that will help you in any career. As a Health Advocate, I developed and executed initiatives and programming, and learned the importance of evaluating existing programs to determine effectiveness and opportunities for change.
I completed a senior thesis, and while it was an experiment-based thesis, it prepared me for researching and designing initiatives, as well as answering questions from audience members.
Because CSB/SJU are liberal arts institutions, I had the unique opportunity to take a variety of classes outside my major. While this may not seem unique to Bennies and Johnnies, it is unique outside of a liberal arts college. A liberal arts education gives you breadth and depth of education. Other schools may provide only depth and it’s up to you to expand your knowledge. Taking classes outside your major allows you the experience in drawing connections between different fields of study. So explore courses outside your comfort zone during your college days…you might find a new spirit within yourself.