Q and A with Stephanie DeFlorio-Barker Heading link
Stephanie earned her MPH from the School of Public Health in 2010, followed by a PhD in Occupational and Environmental Epidemiology in 2015. She currently is completing a post-doc research position with the US Environmental Protection Agency.
What job did you obtain following graduation?
I have a post-doc position with the EPA Office of Research and Development (ORD) in North Carolina. I am working with the National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory (NHEERL), Environmental Public Health Division (EPHD), in the Epidemiology branch.
What are you doing day-to-day?
I started this position recently, so, right now, I’m working on short-term projects with pre-existing data and writing papers; quick things that I can get done. In the future, I’ll be working on longer-term projects, such as evaluating environmental health messaging and communication, in addition to other projects related to air pollution and health. I have a lot of research potential in my new position.
What excites you most about this job?
I’m super excited about this job. I think it’s because I know that I’m really well-prepared. I know I’m going to learn a ton in my position, but I’ve also already learned a ton. The most exciting thing, I think, is that I can actually apply all the things I’ve learned and contribute to science in a more direct way, with a government agency that can really make an impact.
When I started PhD program in EOHS– well, originally, I never thought I would get a PhD – I was planning just to do an MPH. But then, I thought: I should get more of a research degree because I want to work for the EPA., but I really wasn’t sure that it’d be a possibility, but here I am. So, yes, I’m ecstatic; this is exactly what I wanted to be doing!
How do you feel that the masters and doctoral programs at the UIC School of Public Health prepared you for this job?
I feel like UIC gave me a lot of opportunities to learn the things I needed to know—and more—just by giving me chances to network with people in the industry. I hadn’t done anything with communications until I attended a seminar that the school offered, and I happened to stay afterward and talk to the presenter. I then worked on a communications project after I defended my dissertation. So, yes, the program that UIC has is excellent, but there are other beneficial components beyond the official coursework—I mean, the people they bring in to speak and lead sessions are people who really want to work with students, and it’s a great opportunity to go beyond the basics.
What attracted you to UIC’s program, as opposed to other schools?
I applied to a lot of different schools of public health; I emailed 2 or 3 professors at each school in my top three. I heard back from every single one of the people I contacted at UIC, and one of the people even called me. I was really impressed with their willingness to take time out of their day to talk to a prospective student, and I felt like my education would be a priority to them. And, I’m happy to say, the staff and faculty’s attentiveness didn’t change after I was admitted; they continued to be responsive and helpful.
What was your favorite aspect of the program?
I had really great opportunities to present my research. Whenever I wanted to go to a conference, someone would find a way to get me there. I went to Hawaii to present research in 2013. The consequence of these experiences was that I was able to do a lot of networking, which I believe is what helped me to obtain the postdoc position I have now. I also benefitted from the relationships that the faculty have with people outside the university. My supervisor at EPA worked with one of the EOHS faculty and was also a member of my dissertation committee.
Can you think of a particularly memorable aspect of your experience?
When I was a master’s student, I had an opportunity to help with data collection for the study that actually became my dissertation. It was a great opportunity for me to see the research process from start to finish.
Were there faculty or staff who made a notable impact on you?
Dr. Sam Dorevitch was my advisor; he was the “ring leader,” so-to-speak, for all of my research. But really, I feel like my whole committee was really helpful and supportive: Dr. Rachael Jones, Dr. Lee Friedman, and Dr. Mary Turyk. All of them were great.
What advice would you give to an incoming graduate student at UIC? Is there something you wish you had known when you started out?
Network! I didn’t discover all the networking until after I defended my dissertation, and it turns out that networking has been instrumental to my success. I wish I had started that process much earlier. One way to network is to attend alumni events: It’s nice to see that being a student at UIC can get you somewhere. It can sometimes seem like you’re never going to get out of graduate school, and going to those events can help remind you that you will finish, and to see what can happen after.
Also, sit down with your advisor and plan out your courses. Have a really strong program proposal from the beginning. This will help you to graduate in a timely manner and stay on track. It’s not just paperwork – don’t blow it off. It can be really helpful to you if you do it right and think thoroughly about it from the beginning.
What was the most challenging aspect of graduate school for you, and how did you overcome that challenge?
The dissertation process was stressful. I’d advise future students to work closely with their mentor and committee to get clarity about the process and the timeline. Make sure you know what’s expected of you at each step of dissertation, from proposal defense to final defense. Even small details like formatting the final document shouldn’t be an issue, yet things like this can be a big challenge.
Any concluding thoughts?
I really enjoyed my time at UIC. I never regretted staying at the same university for my MPH and PhD. I know some people like to switch schools, but I never really felt a reason to—UIC was great.