FACETS program steers undergrads toward public health careers

Monika Malaka-Kajangu gesturing at her research poster.
Monika Malaka-Kajangu, a rising junior at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, presents at the FACETS research symposium.

July 21, 2023 – Growing up, Shana Grant knew that she wanted to pursue a health-related career, so she set her sights on the path that she was most familiar with—becoming a doctor. But once in college, she found that the idea of practicing medicine didn’t feel quite right.

“I just didn’t know how to express my interest in health and improving health equity without being a doctor,” Grant said. Then, during a casual conversation one day, someone suggested that public health might fit the bill. She recalled thinking at the time, “I’ve literally never heard that before.”

To learn more about the field, Grant, a rising senior at Spelman College, applied to the Fostering Advancement & Careers through Enrichment Training in Science (FACETS) summer program held at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Run by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion since 2014, the six-week program offers rising junior and senior undergraduate students from underrepresented groups around the country a mix of interdisciplinary coursework, hands-on research, and professional development in the field of public health.

Erica Knight, FACETS director, noted that historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and tribal colleges and universities often do not offer majors in public health—which is where FACETS comes in. “The major goal of the program overall is to diversify the pipeline for public health professionals and practitioners,” she said.

Doing research, preparing for grad school

FACETS coursework highlights the interdisciplinary nature of public health, covering subjects ranging from environmental health to social and behavioral sciences to global health to biostatistics.

Humza Irfan standing in front of his research poster.
Humza Irfan, a rising senior at the University of Michigan, at the research symposium

In addition to taking classes, students conduct research under the mentorship of Harvard Chan faculty and researchers and present their projects at a symposium at the end of the program. Research projects undertaken by the nine students in this year’s cohort focused on health disparities, addressing topics such as the prevalence of toxic metals in Black women’s personal care products, barriers faced by undocumented immigrants in accessing health care, and the impact of meditation on stress and cardiovascular disease in Black women.

Professional development for FACETS students is geared toward graduate school preparation. Students learn skills in writing personal statements, networking, and forming relationships with research mentors. Current Harvard Chan students serve as mentors to FACETS participants, helping to give them a sense of graduate school culture and what to look for in a graduate program.

“We want the students to leave the program with a strategy as to how to pursue graduate study and ultimately how to pursue their career,” Knight said. “We want them to leave with an arsenal of tools to help them negotiate and advocate for themselves.”

In one of the professional development workshops held this summer, Amarildo “Lilu” Barbosa, chief diversity, inclusion, and belonging officer at Harvard Chan School, spoke about the importance of minority representation in public health. Students discussed the challenges that underrepresented minorities face in professional settings—both by sharing personal experiences and analyzing a case study.

Overall, the workshop emphasized that students should consider these issues of representation as future leaders in public health, no matter what their roles will be. “This is a lens that you should be applying to your work going forward,” Barbosa said. “If people are doing that, it enhances whatever that work is.”

Career inspiration

Group photo
The 2023 FACETS cohort with program director Erica Knight (at far right) and Harvard Chan graduate student mentors

Grant is currently completing a degree in chemistry with a minor in theater and performing arts. She said that her experience in FACETS has sparked her interest in becoming a public health researcher.

Mentored by Tamarra James-Todd, Mark and Catherine Winkler Associate Professor of Environmental Reproductive Epidemiology, Grant worked on a research project about hair products targeted toward Black women, which can contain chemicals that disrupt hormones.  Grant studied potential correlations between product use and a particularly severe form of alopecia—a disease that causes hair loss—that leads to permanent scarring. During the project, she was able to develop and investigate her own research questions about the topic.

Grant also appreciated the opportunity to talk with researchers in the field—in some cases, those who authored the very papers she was reading. “Many of them said, ‘Let’s continue to stay in contact,’ which just makes me feel like I’m supposed to be here—like my ideas are valid,” she said.

Looking forward, she plans to apply to PhD programs that will enable her to research the social determinants of health, with the goal of eventually working in the nonprofit sector to advance Black maternal health.

FACETS student Gene Pozas—a rising senior at the University of Florida majoring in microbiology and cell science—started college as a pre-med student but then realized that he wanted to shift his focus. “I realized that I could make more of an impact through public health. It could affect more people,” he said.

He conducted research under the mentorship of Brittney Francis, a health and human rights research fellow at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights who studies racial inequities in maternal health. His research project looked at how environmental stressors, such as living in places with noise pollution or food deserts, can affect the risk of preeclampsia in Black and Hispanic people who are pregnant.

Pozas also got the chance to meet Harvard Chan faculty with expertise in environmental health, inspiring him to consider studying in the field. “There’s a lot of great professors that taught what environmental health is like, what it’s about,” he said. “And it just showed me how broad it is and how we can apply it to everyday life.”

Jay Lau

Photos of FACETS research symposium: Anna Webster

Photo of FACETS cohort: Osa Igiede