Matt Lerick

Matt Lerick
Year of Graduation: 2016
Major: Chemistry
Current Position:  Public Health Associate, Centers for Disease Control, Chicago, IL

Describe your current position as well as other positions that you have held.
My current position as a Public Health Associate (PHAP) is a 2-year position with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). PHAPs are stationed at state, local, tribal or territorial health departments or non-governmental agencies (NGOs) to learn to become well-rounded public health professionals. My assignment is at the Chicago Department of Public Health's Immunization Program where I work with providers to help ensure there is proper storage and handling of their federally funded vaccines. As a federal field assignee, I have duties for both the CDC and the Chicago Department of Public Health. It has been interesting to learn the nuances of having CDC duties like Quarterly Activity Reports and CDC trainings, as well as host-site duties, which are mostly day-to-day tasks. My primary roles are at my host-site but I have to make sure to meet the deadlines for the CDC as well.  My previous experiences have been in lab work (I was a Chemistry major), which definitely helped me develop some transferrable skills. I really attribute my attention to detail, understanding of processes, and ability to see the whole picture of a task to my experiences working in chemistry labs.

What led you to a career in Public Health?
I first became interested in Public Health during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, and then continued to be interested in infectious diseases. I knew I could never be a doctor, but I did want to work with health and with people. Public health is a good field to experience a variety of people from different backgrounds, experiences, and cultures, and that is another reason I really became interested in it. 

I found this job by searching "Public Health Jobs" online, and I applied on a whim. I was very surprised when I had made it through all 3 rounds of the application process (resume, personal statement, and interview) and got an offer. One piece of advice I would recommend for current students is to really look at your previous experiences and identify your transferable skills. Then, apply for whatever it is you want to do, even if you do not have direct related experience especially for the entry-level positions. I feel my experience really shows how there are many skills that are gained from different experiences that can apply to many different careers. 

How has your liberal arts education been beneficial to your career path?
One of the most beneficial parts of my liberal arts education is the mix of group work, individual projects, data analysis, writing, and exposure to different types of classes. There are many things I learned just by doing the work for my classes (in addition to the actual content) that have really helped in the "real world." A liberal arts education is actually a very marketable attribute that can also differentiate you from other candidates in your job search. Having a wide variety of skills and knowledge stemming from a liberal arts education has allowed me to understand the "big picture" in Public Health because much of Public Health involves integrating multiple fields for understanding and effective completion of the job. For example, my current position involves organizing and interpreting data (data analysis), writing official letters to providers (writing skills), creating and giving presentations (presentation skills), and calling providers to talk through certain issues with their vaccine storage and handling (communication skills). The courses offered at CSB|SJU really prepared me to transition to do these tasks successfully, so I advise taking advantage of the common curriculum requirements.

What skills are important to be successful?
Some important soft skills that have been helpful are flexibility, enthusiasm, and openness. People appreciate workers who look forward to doing their part and step up to take on new tasks and responsibilities. Being open to criticism and feedback, accepting it, and then applying it going forward show initiative and the ability to listen. Some hard skills that I believe are important in Public Health are attention to detail, data analysis, and a little background or understanding of the science behind health. Much of Public Health is data and science driven, so it helps to have that background to get a good understanding of why certain objectives are pursued.

What is the most satisfying/rewarding part of your job?
I believe the most rewarding part of my job is getting to work alongside some of the most hard-working and ambitious people in the field. The PHAP program at CDC only accepts 150-200 new PHAPs of over 3,500 applicants each year. I think this is a testament to the effort and passion the PHAPs, and I feel privileged to work as one of them. The CDC also employs some of the best professionals in the field, and I am very fortunate to learn from them and even work with some at my host site in Chicago. 

What advice/suggestions would you have for students/alums who wish to enter this field?
Public Health often requires patience (especially when working for the government), flexibility, and adaptability; these are qualities that are developed over time. I would suggest taking a "roll with the punches" attitude when faced with unplanned situations because working in Public Health—especially in government—you never know when priorities can suddenly change. I also suggest getting a variety of experiences in health, either by shadowing doctors or volunteering at a health fair or clinic. These are great ways to experience different parts of health and work with the public. It also demonstrates your commitment and passion to the field, which will always impress your bosses. Finally, I would really advise students to utilize the Experience and Professional Development (formerly Career Services) and other helpful resources that CSB|SJU provides for internship and career goals. Although I am biased towards the department (I worked at Career Services for most of my CSB|SJU experience), I think the services they provide are extremely beneficial and I attribute most of my success in landing this job, to the help I received from them.

What experiences might be helpful for students interested in a Public Health Career?
One of the most influential experiences I had was a Public Health Study Tour put on by the McCarthy Center, during which we visited 5 or 6 sites in the Twin Cities to learn about Public Health jobs. Getting the chance to hear and learn from professionals in the field helped me learn about Public Health as well as gave me some insight into the day-to-day world of many different areas of the field. That type of first-hand experience, even if it isn't an internship or summer job, can be really helpful in giving students a feel for the current issues Public Health professionals face.

Public Health requires a lot of flexibility, communication, and prioritization. Getting some experiences that build those skills—whether through volunteering on campus, working an on-campus job, or an internship—will help you succeed in Public Health. Experiences that involve collaborating in groups or teams to accomplish a common goal are also beneficial as Public Health often involves working with different organizations and different people to collaboratively improve health goals or develop new health standards.

(November 2017)