Q&A with Mary Wesley

We spoke with Mary Wesley, a teaching fellow in the Department of Epidemiology and a graduate of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. As teaching fellow, Mary supports the Delta Scholars Program, directed by Bizu Gelaye. This program is part of the Mississippi Delta Partnership in Public Health.

Can you tell us about your role as a teaching fellow in the newly established Delta Scholars Program in Public Health?

Mary Wesley headshot
Mary Wesley on the campus of one of the Delta Scholars program partners, Jackson State University, a Historically Black College/University (HBCU) in Mississippi.

I work with students, faculty, and organizations in Mississippi and at Harvard to advance public health research and education in the Mississippi Delta Region and in the state as a whole. These goals are part of broader initiatives of the Mississippi Delta Partnership in Public Health developed by the Harvard Chan School. I should note that the School’s Delta Scholars in Public Health program is an addition to an existing collaboration with the Harvard Law School, Mississippi State University, the University of Mississippi, and Mississippi-based nonprofit organizations. These entities previously held Delta Scholars summer institutes in 2018 and 2019; the Harvard Chan School began work with the public health-focused Delta Scholars in the summer of 2020 when my fellowship began.

My fellowship role includes duties in program management, research, and teaching/curriculum development. For the program management role, I support the Delta Scholars in Public Health program coordination and help develop partnerships with Mississippi-based organizations to support placement of Harvard Chan School students for field practice experiences. For the research role, I support and initiate research. I mentor undergraduate Delta Scholar students during the summer and throughout the school year to develop research or community-based public health projects. For the teaching and curriculum development role, I teach introductory public health and epidemiology concepts to undergraduate Delta Scholars during the summer institute and throughout the year. I also serve as a professional resource to Harvard Chan School students that are awarded the Harvard-Mississippi Delta Fellowship in Public Health, drawing from my public health work experience in Mississippi.

How has your previous training, including your time as a doctoral student here, prepared you for this role?

The program management portion involves work with Delta Directions Consortium leadership, Harvard Chan School faculty, Harvard Law School and affiliates engaged in Delta Programs to help coordinate program needs, as well as recruit and select Delta Scholars. I have previous experience working as a liaison with Office Directors at the Mississippi State Department of Health and state government agencies to coordinate maternal and child health data for federal grants. In my previous position at the Mississippi Department of Health, I also developed job descriptions and agency applications to host fellows for programs such as the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists (CSTE) Applied Epidemiology Fellowship and the Region IV Public Health Training Center at Emory University. I worked locally with the faculty at the Jackson State University School of Public Health to host student interns. I learned to work with organization leadership to understand their program needs and work with external funding partners to understand their funding priorities. In addition to my work with interns and fellows, I also led and supported hiring analysts for maternal and child health programs within several offices at the Mississippi Department of Health. In that capacity, I prepared job descriptions, reviewed job applications, conducted interviews, and supported candidate selection for employment.

My previous research training includes graduate school at the Harvard Chan School and the University of Alabama at Birmingham. My research work experience includes several research internships and fellowships. I also supported faculty at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Hospital in the Department of Surgery, Division of GI Surgery. I was a Project Coordinator at UAB Hospital where I developed, coordinated, and managed clinical research studies for attending surgeons and surgery residents. I coordinated IRB approval and maintained institutional research documentation while working one-on-one with surgical residents to complete research and develop abstracts for professional conferences. I have served as a reviewer for the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS), the Academy Health Health Datapalooza and National Health Policy Conference, the American Public Health Association (APHA) conference, and the Harvard Public Health Review.

My previous work with teaching and curriculum development includes employment as a K-12 public school science teacher, an undergraduate teaching assistant for Biology lab at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, a teaching fellow for the Harvard Chan School orientation course in global health, and a teaching fellow for a Negotiations course at the Harvard Chan School. My previous mentoring experience includes work with students in formal mentoring roles as a Project Coordinator at UAB Hospital and as an epidemiologist at the Mississippi State Department of Health, where I mentored masters-level students and doctoral student interns.

What are you most excited about, and looking forward to, with the program?

I am excited about all aspects of the program! I am probably most drawn to the focus of working with undergraduate students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). I graduated from Prairie View A&M University, an HBCU, for my undergraduate degree. I am thrilled to see Harvard Chan making an investment in students from minority-serving institutions.

Furthermore, I am excited to support a pipeline program at the Harvard Chan School. I have personally benefited from pipeline programs similar to the Delta Scholars program during my high school and college education. I attended two university-based academic enhancement summer programs during high school, one summer program after high school, two summer programs during college, and a two-year post baccalaureate research program following college. I can personally attest to the huge impact these enrichment opportunities can make on students. The additional training and support of pipeline programs has been an essential piece of my own academic and professional trajectory. I now look forward to providing similar opportunities for students to support their future success.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in developing this program during the pandemic, if any?

I must first note that this work is very much a collaborative effort. I have been supported by many wonderful colleagues including my supervisor Bizu Gelaye, Harvard Chan School staff (Jocelyn Chu and Stacey King) as well as with great partners at Harvard Law School, Mississippi State University, the University of Mississippi, and the Delta Directions Consortium. The constraints of remote work across multiple time zones added a layer of complexity to coordinating among multiple entities. This was probably the greatest challenge. However, the students, faculty and partners were phenomenal in creating community and coming together to support program goals.

What are some of your hopes for what this program can provide for its participants? How many scholars will take part in this year’s cohort?

I hope that the program provides a new perspective for students on what they can achieve and how they can make an impact in their communities. There are currently 16 students in the 2021 Delta Scholars program cohort that attended the summer institute. The Harvard Chan School will directly support and provide mentoring for three undergraduate students with a public health focus.

Can you tell us something about you that colleagues may not know?

I LOVE musicals. I have lots of great childhood memories from enjoying shows and singing along with my family—The Sound of Music (1965 version), The Wiz, etc. It has been great to see many musicals come to the movie screen in recent years.

Coppelia Liebenthal