Student Spotlight


Sarah Markt and Kevin Kensler

Sarah Markt is a graduating fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Cancer Epidemiology program studying effect of circadian rhythm disruption on prostate cancer risk and progression.  Prior to coming to HSPH, Sarah earned her MPH in Epidemiology at George Washington University.  She was drawn to Epidemiology as a field where she could apply both biologic knowledge and quantitative methods to address public health problems at a population level.  Sarah became particularly interested in Cancer Epidemiology through a course on Infections and Cancer she took at GWU.  During and following her Master’s program, Sarah worked at the National Cancer Institute before ultimately coming to HSPH.

At HSPH, Sarah has been working with Lorelei Mucci, ScD, in the Prostate Cancer Epidemiology group.  She cites the people in this group as one of the driving reasons for her decision to focus her research on prostate cancer.  One of her favorite memories of her time at HSPH is “fika,” in which the Prostate Cancer group gathers once a week for coffee and treats.  “Fika” (Swedish for coffee break) gives the group a chance to discuss science and life.  This lets the group get to know their colleagues a little better and bounce ideas off each other.

Much of Sarah’s doctoral research has been based in the AGES Reykjavik Cohort.   She was awarded the Rose Traveling Fellowship, which she used to travel to Iceland to conduct research in this cohort.  Sarah cites her experience working with this dataset as particularly valuable, since it made consider her larger issues in study design and analysis that may not have arisen if she had restricted her research to within the Harvard cohorts.

For current and future students, Sarah recommends taking several of the Cancer Epidemiology courses, specifically citing Infections and Cancer taught by Jennifer Rider, ScD, and the Advanced Cancer Epidemiology Seminar taught by Rulla Tamimi, ScD, as favorites.  She enjoyed these classes because of their small class size and discussion-based format.  In order to prepare for the written qualifying exam, Sarah recommends forming a small group, in which they feel comfortable to ask questions.  For the oral exam, she suggests students form an examination committee based on who they would like to receive mentoring and advice from over the following years, rather than who will ask the easiest questions.  Additionally, she stresses the importance of devoting quality time to writing a thesis proposal in EPI 205, as this will be beneficial later when writing manuscripts and one’s dissertation.   Finally, it is important to remember that there is life outside of one’s coursework and research.  Student should make sure to have fun with their cohort and to celebrate each other’s accomplishments throughout the program.

Upon completing her doctorate, Sarah will be staying at HSPH for her postdoctoral fellowship.  She will be continuing her prostate cancer epidemiology projects with Lorelei Mucci, ScD, and will also be working with Jennifer Rider, ScD, investigating the epidemiology of head and neck cancers.

Interview by Kevin Kensler (ScD candidate in the Epi Dept.)
May 2014

ZEINA SIAMzeina siam

Zeina Ali Siam is passionate about improving health outcomes in the Middle East. Growing up in East Jerusalem, she noted how breast cancer was diagnosed at late stages. “Breast cancer awareness is low, there are barely any centers for screening or diagnosis, and not many specialized doctors in cancer care,” she says.

“When people in my country hear of cancer, they call it ‘that’ disease’. There is tremendous fear when it comes to discussing cancer.” Improving the detection, treatment, and prevention of breast cancer became a major interest for her. After completing a Bachelors of Science degree in biological engineering at MIT, she is now completing her 2nd year in the Master of Science program in cancer epidemiology.

“Quantitative skills and the ability to design and implement studies are powerful assets in this century. They enable you to conduct, understand, and also criticize the research out there,” she shares. At HSPH, she found several opportunities to complement her training in epidemiologic methods. One eye-opening course was ‘Field Methods in Humanitarian Crises’ with Professor Greenough in the Global Health Department. “We’re used to analyzing ready and large datasets in our epidemiology courses, but what do we do when there are no or very limited data, or when you are trying to understand the health status of unstable populations like refugees and immigrants?”

Zeina also emphasizes getting to know the diverse group of students at HSPH. “People are full of passion for public health. There is no conversation in Kresge Café that did not inspire me.” Particularly dedicated to refugees and neglected populations in the Middle East, she recalls one particular lunch with a student who had been working on the Syrian crisis after graduating from HSPH. “Someone here shares your passion, what you want to do,” she says. “Get to know as many people as possible, meet people from other departments, professors, student groups. Get involved in activities and make the most use of your experience here.”

Now ready to graduate, she is working on her thesis. “Currently I am looking at the relationship between insulin receptor activity and breast cancer survival.” Zeina aspires to return to the Middle East to apply the epidemiologic and leadership skills she acquired at HSPH to reduce health disparities for the underserved.

Interview by Yenee Soh (MS2 candidate in the Epi Dept.)
April 2014


Julia Sisti is a fourth year epidemiology doctoral student studying dietary and reproductive risk factors for breast cancer with Dr. Heather Eliassen.  Julia moved to Boston from New York, where she had been working in a lab doing basic science brain cancer research.  Originally interested in neuroscience, she decided to apply to epidemiology programs because she wanted her research to take a bigger picture, more people-focused, approach to health.

Julia is very happy at HSPH because of the classes, resources and people.  Her favorite classes at HSPH have been the substantive classes, such as cancer epidemiology (EPI213), where she was able to see the application of epidemiologic methods to specific diseases.  She also appreciated the causal inference classes because they teach a novel way of thinking.

Julia enjoys working with the Nurses Health Study data and suggests that future students take advantage of access to the NHS dataset because it is an amazing resource for HSPH students.  Other wonderful resources are the faculty and students.  Some of her favorite times at HSPH have been those spent with her classmates studying for the written qualifying exam.  Although difficult, she found it to be a wonderful bonding and learning experience.  Julia recommends getting to know and become friends with students who are studying a wide variety of topics in order to be exposed to the interesting research being conducted here at HSPH.

Interview by Rachel Zack (ScD candidate in the Epi Dept.)
April 2014


Jason Wong is a graduating ScD student in Cancer Epidemiology. Upon graduation, Jason will be starting his post-doctoral fellowship at Stanford University. As many of us already know, Jason was also offered a position at the National Cancer Institute. There is much to learn from his successful experience at HSPH.

Prior to joining HSPH, Jason was building his research career in molecular biology. However, Jason felt that his scope of research was a bit limited and searched to be “part of an area that had more public health significance while still trying to understand the mechanism of diseases.” He also felt that “molecular and genetic epidemiology was an emerging field at the time in the wake of the Human Genome Project and HapMap” whereas molecular biology was becoming more over-saturated and “becoming difficult to do truly novel work.”

Having experienced both the field of molecular biology and cancer epidemiology, Jason hopes that fellow students in the cancer epi program will remember that they “are scientists first and foremost, not just analysts.” He expanded on this comment further saying that we should “try not to approach a scientific question in epidemiology just from a statistical standpoint… [we should] try to use substantive knowledge to understand the scope of our question and consider if the corresponding analysis we’re doing really makes biological sense.”

When asked what his favorite class was at HSPH, Jason chose EPI201 because “it really framed the perspective in which to approach epidemiology for the rest of [his] program.” He appreciated the class for going into the “philosophical underpinnings of science that are largely missing in many other epidemiology programs.”

During the interview, Jason was also generous in sharing many tips for cancer epi students who are preparing for their upcoming written and oral exams. First, with the written exam Jason said “speed and precise time management is the key to success.” He advised that there will not be enough time to answer a comprehensive answer to each question and that we should focus on the main points. Jason proposed that one study strategy to “build speed and endurance” is to answer 1-3 old exam questions every day in the month leading up to the exam, devoting 1 hour per question.

For the oral exam, Jason highly recommends that students “choose a committee that is on [their] side.” He thinks the best way to prepare for oral exam is to “look at your project from all angles and consider different tools and analyses to address your scientific question […] know all the strengths and limitations of your exposure assessment, outcome assessment, study design, and analysis.” Jason points out that at the end of the day the most important thing is to “convince yourself and others why your project is important from a public health perspective.” Lastly, Jason urged students to “choose a project that is interesting to [them]” and something that “will help [their] career aspirations in the future” instead of “a data-mining project.”

Looking back at his time at HSPH, Jason said that his “favorite memories were interacting with the remarkable faculty and students” who have helped him experience science from many different perspectives. But, he added a warning that “the doctoral program at HSPH is not fun, it’s boot camp” and that “it is meant to break you down in order to build you up.”

We thank Jason for sharing his personal experiences at HSPH and valuable study tips. We wish him the best luck!

Interview by Donghoon Lee (ScD candidate in the Epi Dept.)
April 2014


Natalie first came to HSPH as a research assistant for the prostate cancer epidemiology team.  She is now finishing up her master’s degree in cancer epidemiology and is excited to continue her time at HSPH this coming fall as a doctoral student!

Natalie spoke very highly of her academic and research experiences at HSPH. When asked about her most rewarding experiences, Natalie reflected on moments where concepts she had learned continued to layer onto each other and fall into place. This occurred not only in classes like EPI247, but also outside of the classroom in journal clubs and conversations with peers. She suggests that incoming students focus on learning and taking courses that incorporate various aspects of epidemiology (e.g., methods and policy), and try not to get too bogged down by all of the work and assessments. The cancer epidemiology courses are fantastic settings for those interested in cancer to practice their epidemiologic expertise in conjunction with their interests.

She was also enthusiastic about the connections she has made with her classmates and faculty as well as all of the fantastic opportunities there are to get involved in the HSPH and Epi Department communities.  Natalie’s cohort is a tight-knit group. One of the highlights of Natalie’s time as a second year student was when classmates sang “Happy Birthday” to her during a class.  Natalie has been involved in multiple student groups, and she recently helped to bring back “Reel Epi,” a student group that hosts screenings of movies with epidemiology themes for the HSPH community. She highly recommends that every student take the time to go to events and journal clubs to meet others and cultivate professional relationships and friendships. It may seem like there’s never enough time, but it’s worth it.

Interview by Mollie Barnard (MS2 candidate in the Epi Dept.)
April 2014


Marcelle Dougan is a current fifth year doctoral student in epidemiology studying life-course exposures and endometrial cancer risk. Originally from Sierra Leone, Marcelle trained as a chemical engineer. Looking for career change, she decided on epidemiology after reading an article about the field and finding that it combined her interests in basic science and public health practice.

During her time at HSPH, one of Marcelle’s favorite courses was Analysis of Case-Control, Cohort, and Other Epidemiologic Data (EPI 204), taught by Dr. Joel Schwartz, where students have the opportunity to put the epidemiologic theory and analysis methods learned in previous courses into practice. Because time at HSPH will pass quickly, Marcelle advises that students plan their semesters carefully so that they are able to take those classes that interest them most. She also recommends that students work and interact with faculty from different disciplines and to keep in mind that even those working at other universities can be great resources.

Regarding preparation for the qualifying exams, Marcelle’s advice is simple: stay positive and believe in yourself. Forming a study group also provides important support and an opportunity to discuss concepts. Marcelle adds that the oral exam–usually taken in the third doctoral year–is where everything comes together. It is a great opportunity to combine theory with practice, using what has been learned in courses. Although developing a research plan can be difficult, it is important to remember that doctoral work is the beginning of a career, not the end.

Nearing the completion of her degree, Marcelle says that she will most remember the friends that she has made as well as the support from her peers. After graduation, she will continue to conduct epidemiologic research.

Interview by Claire Pernar (ScD candidate in the Epi Dept.)
April 2014


Julia Udesky is a second year masters student in the Epidemiology Department. Julia’s interest in cancer epidemiology was spurred through her experience volunteering in the pediatric oncology ward in a hospital in New York City. After working as a Research Coordinator for a few years, Julia decided to complete a Masters Degree in epidemiology in order to further explore her academic interests and take her career to the next level. She now does prostate cancer research alongside Jennifer Rider, ScD, in the cancer epidemiology department.

Julia Udesky and Megan Diamond

Julia Udesky and Megan Diamond

At the Harvard School of Public Health, Julia’s favorite courses were in cancer epidemiology. She particularly enjoyed Infections & Cancer, where students are encouraged to explore the interaction of communicable diseases and cancer. More broadly, Julia has really appreciated how frequently guest lecturers are incorporated into courses at HSPH. She has found that guest lecturers are a great networking tool and that they are very eager to interact with the students. She would tell future students to not be hesitant to approach them for advice or follow-up questions- you never know what opportunities could come from it!

In addition to her schoolwork, Julia volunteers as a tutor at a local school in Roxbury, Boston, an opportunity she learned about at HSPH. Volunteering with the students has made her feel more connected to The Harvard School of Public Health and Boston as a whole. Julia is excited to graduate, as she is looking forward to applying the knowledge and skills she has learned in the last two years.

Interview by Megan Diamond (MS2 candidate in the Epi Dept.)
April 2014


Rebecca Graff is currently a fifth year doctoral candidate in cancer epidemiology focusing on molecular subtypes of prostate cancer. She discovered her interest in epidemiology through her quantitative background. After working in market research, she decided to apply her interest in statistics to an area that she found more interesting, and started the doctoral program in epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). As a doctoral candidate she has enjoyed the epidemiology methods curriculum, the Infections and Cancer course taught by Jennifer Rider, ScD, and the Advanced Cancer Epidemiology Seminar taught by Rulla Tamimi, ScD.  Not only has she enjoyed the engaging academic coursework at HSPH, but she has also appreciated her interactions with fellow students. It’s this collaboration that helped her get through the challenging experience of the written exam.

As advice for new students, Rebecca noted the importance of finding a good study group where you feel comfortable to ask questions and less anxious about the exam.  In addition to her positive experiences with classmates, Rebecca has also enjoyed the support and guidance she has received from researchers at HSPH. For new students, she stressed the value of having an open, communicative relationship with their advisor, and the benefit of learning from the expertise of faculty members.  For example, she noted the utility in finding a helpful committee for the oral exam that can transition to your thesis committee. After graduation Rebecca will be a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at UCSF where her research will focus on cancer genetics.

Interview by Erin E. Onstad, MPH (ScD candidate in the Epi Dept.)
March 2014