Interview: Dr. Ekta Choudhary, Epidemiologist, CDC.gov and Prevention’s National Environmental Public Health Tracking Program

EktaInterviewDr. Ekta Choudhary, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Environmental Public Health Tracking Program, joins us today to discuss her work.

#1 Could you tell us about the National Environmental Public Health Tracking Program?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Environmental Public Health Tracking Program (Tracking Program) is a nationwide effort to collect, interpret, and report data.  The Tracking Program brings together data for environmental hazards and exposures, related health effects, and population demographics and behaviors.  By covering these three types of data, this program uniquely fills the information gap between public health and environmental health issues.

The Tracking Program hosts the National Environmental Public Health Tracking Network (Tracking Network). The Tracking Network is a surveillance system with information and data from a variety of national, state, and city sources. You can find information on health effects such as asthma, cancer, and reproductive health issues as well as environmental exposures such as climate change, outdoor air, and community water. For information about these topics and more, visit the Tracking Network.

#2 How could the Tracking Network be a useful resource to MPH students?

The Tracking Network collects, interprets, and reports different types of data which can be used to learn how the environment affects people’s health. It provides information about

  • Environmental hazards and exposure which are data about chemicals or other substances such as carbon monoxide and air pollution in the environment.
  • Health effects which are data about health conditions and diseases, such as asthma and birth defects.
  • Population descriptors which are data that help us learn about relationships between exposures and health effects. For example, information about age, sex, race, and behavior or lifestyle choices that may help us understand why a person has a particular health problem.

MPH students can use these data to learn about the environmental health of their community and for school projects.  If you are studying health behavior, for instance, you might find our population characteristics page relevant to your coursework.  If you study epidemiology, you might prefer to look at our data on cancer, asthma, community water, or air quality.

#3 What do you do with the Tracking Program?  What other kinds of jobs are there with the Tracking Program?

I am an epidemiologist with the Tracking Program. I work with data to get it ready to put on the website, develop methods to evaluate environmental and health data, analyze trends, work with other Federal agencies to get data for the Tracking Network, and conduct studies to understand the relationships between environmental exposure and associated health effects.

I work with a lot of other public health professionals.  Our science team includes statisticians, an environmental engineer, and other epidemiologists.  We have an information technology team that develops the online maps and other website tools, a communications team that creates content for the website and communication products like videos, social media posts, fact sheets, infographics, and more, and a program services team that coordinates tracking efforts with our state and local partners.  The Tracking Program provides funding to 24 state and city health departments to develop and sustain local tracking programs, and all of our teams provide support to these health departments.

#4 I’m interested in pursuing a career in environmental public health tracking!  What types of courses would you recommend?

All kinds of public health specialties can be valuable assets to the Tracking Program.  We have people with a wide variety of backgrounds with bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees.  Epidemiology, biostatistics and environmental health courses will give you a good foundation to work as a public health scientist with a Tracking Program.  Many colleges of public health have courses in health program planning, policy, and communication which can help you prepare for a position with the communication team.  For our Project Officers, strong skill sets in grants management and finance are required.  For our IT team, advanced computer skills are needed.

If you are interested in courses specifically related to Environmental Public Health Tracking, we have our own online courses called “Tracking 101” and “Tracking in Action”.  Our newest curriculum was developed for college-level instruction and focuses on environmental health, the role of the Tracking Program, and using the Tracking Network to solve public health problems.  It will be available this fall.

#5 What is your education/work background?  How did it prepare you for your job with the Tracking Program?

I have my bachelor’s in Microbiology and a Master’s in Cell and Molecular Biology.  Then I completed an MPH program in epidemiology.   After my MPH, I did my PhD program in Population Epidemiology and Biostatistics at West Virginia University’s Injury Control Research Center.  After finishing my PhD, I joined CDC as Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) Officer in 2009. During my EIS program at the CDC, I provided epidemiologic expertise to emergency preparedness and response situations for natural disasters.

My training in basic sciences and public health helped me prepare for my current job with the Tracking Program.  I learned about epidemiological and statistical methods during my Master’s and PhD programs which I use every day in my job.

#6 What is working life like at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention?

Working at CDC is a joy because of the diversity of other professionals I get to work with.  It’s a very collaborative environment, and I get to learn from others who have been in public health for many years.

#7 Are there internship opportunities with the Tracking Program?

All internships and fellowships with the Tracking Program come from the general CDC fellowship system.  Fellowships and internships exist for most educational levels.  You can check out this page to see which one best fits you.

Thank you Dr. Ekta Choudhary for participating in this interview.

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