Author: Larissa Puro

Meet 2019 USC preventive medicine graduates

From community health to mental health, health services to health behavior, Keck School of Medicine graduates of the Department of Preventive Medicine reflect on their studies and achievements at USC.

Meet a few members of our 2019 graduating class:

Amanda Litty
Amanda Litty
Master of Public Health, concentration in health communication
Eric Takiguchi
Eric Takiguchi
Master of Public Health, concentration in biostatistics and epidemiology
Jasmine Kayla Hall
Jasmine Kayla Hall
Master of Public Health, concentration in global health
Jennifer Maradiaga-Contreras
Jennifer Maradiaga-Contreras
Master of Public Health, concentration in community health promotion and disaster management
Kayla Tilton
Kayla Tilton
Progressive degree B.S. Health Promotion & Disease Prevention and Master of Public Health, concentration in health services and policy
Sydney G. O'Connor
Sydney G. O’Connor
PhD Health Behavior Research

Why did you choose to pursue your degree?

Amanda: I chose my program because of the specific focus on health communications. I have always been interested in how we as practitioners can better communicate health messages so that populations and communities can make informed decisions regarding their health.

Eric: Since my undergraduate degree, I knew I wanted to be more involved in public health because it had aspects of health care and social justice that fulfilled the types of values and interests I grew up with. Once I took an epidemiology course, I immediately became interested pursuing a master’s degree. I knew that USC would provide me with the professors, education and immensely large network that would help me to achieve any job of my interests especially in research.

Jasmine: I chose the USC Master of Public Health Program, and a concentration in global health leadership, at the Keck School of Medicine to expand my research and understanding of how institutions with global historical — and contemporary — legacies of oppression function to inform colonized and marginalized populations’ social determinants of health and health outcomes.

Jennifer: I chose the Master of Public Health program because I wanted a diverse training experience in the health field that connects multiple disciplines such as politics, communications and science. The curriculum at USC also provides a great exposure to different fields of public health, ranging from health policy, health communications, epidemiology, to disaster management, biostatistics, program design and program evaluation.

Karen: Before I joined the program, I received my Master of Public Health and worked as a public health researcher and lecturer. I came to realize how important prevention and earlier interventions are and became more interested in how we can change unhealthy behaviors and promote healthier behaviors in order to prevent disease and intervene at earlier stages of disease.

Kayla: I chose this program because it is built around service learning, which poises us to become leaders of our communities in public health. Community-based experiential training gives us breadth of understanding of who we serve and how we can accomplish these goals most effectively. I knew this program would enable me to help diminish or even eliminate health inequities and disparities locally and beyond through providing a concentration in policy from the public health perspective.

I knew this program would enable me to help diminish or even eliminate health inequities and disparities locally and beyond…

Kayla Tilton

Sydney: There’s so much potential for improving public health through preventive approaches. For example, a profound degree of risk for common chronic diseases, such as obesity, hypertension, and cancers, can be mitigated by engaging in healthy lifestyle behaviors, such as consuming fruits and vegetables, being physically active and obtaining adequate sleep.

What has been your biggest accomplishment during your studies?

Amanda: To be completely honest, I think my biggest achievement has been completing my degree. I am extremely proud of the work I have put into this program, and have seen myself as a professional and a person. I am proud to have earned this degree and be apart of the Trojan Family.

Eric: My biggest accomplishment during my education at USC was creating Pasadena’s first Communicable Disease Report. I was able to use epidemiology and data analysis coding skills to help write and design a 30+ page report for reportable diseases in Pasadena. It also allowed me to get a glimpse of work experience I had imagined myself working in.

I was able to use epidemiology and data analysis coding skills to help write and design a 30+ page report for reportable diseases in Pasadena.

Eric Takiguchi

Jasmine: My biggest accomplishment has been creating an intervention for alcoholism and major depression that will be implemented this summer in Havana, Cuba.

Jennifer: One of my biggest accomplishments in the program is that I completed the Los Angeles Marathon in 2019 for the third time and brought home a new personal record while working two internships and having a 12-unit course load. It was a tough semester; many sacrifices were made, but it has all been worth it. In the four months of training for the Los Angeles Marathon, I ran over 250 miles throughout Los Angeles with AdidasRunners LA and WeRunLA Crew, made many new friendships, and diligently managed my time between studying, internships, marathon training and rest/recovery days.

Karen: I really feel like I have accomplished a lot during my PhD program – I have published a few good papers, worked with great mentors, made wonderful friends, etc. Of all of those, I would say the biggest one is: I defended my dissertation and am getting my degree after all!

Kayla: My biggest accomplishment was being able to see the impact I made in my community through my work. Through my practicum at the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, I was able to see how my efforts directly improved people’s lives through interfacing with constituents who were the beneficiaries of my various projects. For example, I engaged the underserved and uninsured community members of South LA to attend Care Harbor Los Angeles 2018 to receive free, comprehensive health services. It was humbling to see how a simple dental bridge or new pair of glasses can really instantaneously improve someone’s quality of life and happiness, and it felt incredible to be a part of that.

Sydney: In 2017, I was awarded a National Institutes of Health individual pre-doctoral grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (F31HL137346) to study the role of day-to-day variability in sleep health on children’s dietary quality, eating behavior and longitudinal obesity risk. This grant allowed me to build independence as a researcher and provided me with incredible opportunities for training and career development.

What’s an important lesson you learned?

Amanda: I think the most important thing I have learned is to be innovative in your approach and look a problem with multiple lenses. In public health, it is important to really consider how the same health problems are nuanced for different populations. You always have to challenge yourself to think creatively to solve problems and consider the experience and culture of the community.

Eric: An important thing I continue to learn through my education including USC is that it is important to show appreciation and love to the people (especially family) that made it possible for me to be here. Busy and tough weeks were easily relieved through a simple Facetime of seeing my family and dog. It is important that the people that allow me to be here know that I am making the most of my experience.

Jennifer: The concentration in community health promotion helped me gain knowledge of theories and evidence-based programs, along with the necessary skills to effectively provide health education and communicate within organizations and community members about how to prevent disease, prepare for emergencies and recover from disasters.

Jasmine: Throughout this program I have learned through the absence of black professors in the classroom and black intellectuals on the syllabi the critical importance of having both within institutions of higher learning. Many of my peers throughout the program would tell me how much they enjoyed being in class with me and the global perspective that I brought to the classroom. I know that this perspective comes from having a variety of knowledge sets to pull from beyond the discourse that is largely dominated by Anglo/Euro scholars. I learned that there are challenges with being the object and subject of the research and that therefore it is a necessity to be supported and affirmed by the institution in my academic endeavors.

Karen: Collaboration is key to success – this can be between colleagues or faculties. Share your ideas with others and discuss. Abstract ideas can be feasible research topics and you can expand your insights with other people’s different opinions and approaches.

Collaboration is key to success …. Share your ideas with others and discuss.

Chaelin Karen Ra

Kayla: I learned to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Every time I pushed myself outside of my comfort zone in this program and in my practicum, something amazing came out of it. Being in graduate school itself is a tumultuous, unpredictable period, but learning how to outgrow discomfort has really empowered me to pursue my goals despite all other circumstances. Now I feel like anything can be thrown my way and I will still be able to accomplish what I set out to do while staying true to who I am.

Sydney: The road to a PhD is filled with many challenges. While it’s important to stay focused on the end goal, it’s also important to celebrate the small victories along the way, such as presenting at a conference or submitting an article to a journal.

What’s one of your favorite memories from your program?

Amanda: My favorite memory is going to San Diego for the 2018 American Public Health Association Conference with my fellow MPH Ambassadors! I loved listening to different panels and catching up with former colleagues.

Eric: Two of my favorite memories from the time spent in my program was being part of the Master of Public Health Student Association and being at the American Public Health Association’s Annual Conference in San Diego. Both experiences allowed me to meet people that shared my passion for improving public health while learning about the great work currently happening.

Jasmine: One of my favorite memories in the program was being able to work with MD/MPH students Nana Bonsu and Lloyd Camper. Together, we conducted a focus group at KRST Unity Center of AfRaKan Spiritual Science in South Central Los Angeles. The focus group was about the impact of mass incarceration on the community health. This was the first time the community had ever experienced an opportunity to process the detrimental impacts of mass incarceration and it was an honor to provide a safe space for them to do so. After our event KRST let us know that the focus group was so impactful they would be starting an entire program within the center dedicated to addressing the Prison Industrial Complex, which is a major public health issue throughout the United States.

Jennifer: Two of my favorite memories in this program would have to be the Homecoming tailgate and Sacramento conference trip with the PM 547 course taught by Dr. Michael Cousineau. MaPHSA hosts the football tailgate and brings together on-campus and online students to socially interact before the Trojans take the field. I was able to interact with my peers beyond the classroom during this event. To this day, I can still look back and reminisce about the games and fun times with my program peers. Second, in the spring semester of 2019, Dr. Cousineau’s PM 547 class went to Sacramento to attend the Insure the Uninsured Project conference and talk to legislators in the State Capitol about proposed bills that relate to our class group projects. It was a complete honor to represent the Keck School in Sacramento through our legislative visits and in the conference, specifically in the open Q&A sessions. Collectively, the PM 547 course was a great learning experience because it made me take a different approach in health policy and politics along with the legislator visit discussions and research done for the group projects.

Karen: Pulling all-nighters – working late with other students after all lights turn off at the Soto building, late-night snacking, making coffee (or driving to Starbucks) at midnight, running into the cleaning guy at 3:00 a.m., and going home after sunrise

Kayla: One of my favorite memories was definitely visiting Sacramento with Dr. Cousineau’s policy class. Not only did this trip to the State Capitol introduce me to the public policy and public affairs realm that turned out to be the specific path within public health that I followed, but it was such a fun bonding experience to get to know my peers in the program who I still remain close with now at the end of the program.

Sydney: Although PhD students are notorious for always working, every once in a while we would take a break to do something completely different. From forming an intramural soccer team, to seeing a musical at Hollywood Pantages, to checking out a new happy hour spot, these social events were memorable and provided a fun break from research.

What will you miss most and why?

Amanda: I will miss the faculty and staff the most. I always felt they truly cared about my education and well-being. They took a genuine interest in my experience in the MPH program and were always available to listen.

I definitely will miss my cohort and our incredibly passionate professors and staff members.

Jennifer Maradiaga-Contreras

Eric: I will definitely miss my peers and professors the most! I feel comfortable contacting professors and meeting friends for lunch even after I graduate, but not seeing them on a weekly basis will be missed. The community is very inclusive, respectful, and patient especially with learning new material.

Jasmine: I will miss the opportunity to exchange knowledge each week in the classroom with my peers and professors. I will miss the interdisciplinary conversations that come from being in class with students from a variety of backgrounds and the opportunities that it presented to further my own understanding of relevant health issues.

Jennifer: I definitely will miss my cohort and our incredibly passionate professors and staff members. Group projects throughout the program allowed me to expand my peer network because many of my classmates come from various disciplines and cultural backgrounds. Through these interactions, I have learned a great amount about myself and how to work with others of diverse backgrounds. My professors in this program have been influential and encouraging. They will work closely with students that reach out to them and do anything in their power to help their students succeed. I have received a great amount of support from my professors when I reached out for their help and guidance.

Karen: Friends, of course because I LOVE them!!

Kayla: I will miss being surrounded by such great energy and excitement for the field of public health. This program houses such diverse and different, yet somewhat like-minded individuals, and I will miss being immersed in the innovative environment this program has always fostered.

Sydney: During my time at USC, I served as an executive board member of Graduate Student Government as well as the Health Behavior Research Student Association. These opportunities allowed me to connect with fellow graduate students from across the university, and build lasting friendships, which will be greatly missed.

What are you doing after you graduate?

Amanda: After I graduate I am moving to the San Francisco Bay Area and look forward to becoming a part of the public health community there!

Eric: After I graduate I plan to work using SAS, epidemiology, data management, and analysis skills I’ve learned at USC. I look forward to making great discoveries or contributions in public health.

Jasmine: I am the co-founder of The African Diaspora Alliance, an organization dedicated to black liberation and freedom for all oppressed people. Using health and education as our framework we have various initiatives that promote health, healing and solidarity throughout the African diaspora. This August, after graduation, we will implement “Diaspora Sol,” a public health intervention that will bring ​community health workers, scholars, activists, hair stylists, mental health specialists, community organizers and artists together for three days to address alcoholism and mental health among Afro-Cuban women and adolescents. After graduation I will continue developing other initiatives such as our Youth of the Diaspora Program for which we have developed an African diaspora curriculum inclusive of study abroad opportunities.

Jennifer: After I graduate, I will be finishing my internship work in the City of Los Angeles Emergency Management Department and Southern California Earthquake Center. Beyond the two internships, I plan on working in the field of emergency and disaster management.

Karen: I will relocate to Oklahoma City a week after my commencement and start working as a postdoctoral scholar at the Oklahoma Tobacco Research Center of the University of Oklahoma from June.

Kayla: I recently accepted my invitation to become a member of the Class of 2020 Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs in Los Angeles. During this fellowship, I will be involved in a series full-time projects across a variety of sectors including government, business, electoral politics, organized labor, non-profit and philanthropy.

Sydney: I will be joining the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program in Rockville, MD.

What do you look forward to in your career path?

Amanda: I look forward to applying my knowledge of health communications to different areas of public health. My undergraduate degree is in nutrition, and I have worked in youth sexual and reproductive health with the LA County Department of Public Health. I am excited to see what more there is for me to learn about this field.

Eric: Once I gain valuable work experience and see how my education is applicable in the work field I intend to reconsider a PhD in epidemiology, continue doing research or work at a Department of Public Health to make a difference at the county level.

Jasmine: In my career path I look forward to creating sustainable systems that allow for marginalized communities to have access to quality healthcare and education. I look forward to opening hospitals and schools/universities that are attentive to the specific needs of black and brown communities and centers the narrative of black, brown and indigenous folks. In my career path I look forward to strengthening the world of medical pluralism by bringing legitimacy to the work of traditional naturopathic medicinal methods to challenge the dominant allopathic bio-medical system that consistently fails vulnerable communities.

I look forward to creating sustainable systems that allow for marginalized communities to have access to quality healthcare and education

Jasmine Kayla Hall

Jennifer: In my career path I look forward to improving and impacting preparedness efforts for emergencies with an all-hazards approach and looking for innovative ways to increase recovery efforts after a disaster strikes in vulnerable communities.

Karen: In the short term, I will be focusing on applying for a grant. Once I get my own grant, I will start to apply for a tenure-track faculty position. My long-term goal is to be a faculty, run my own projects and mentor students.

Kayla: I look forward to learning how to navigate the public affairs space, and the various sectors it involves, with my fellowship in order to engage efforts and influence governmental policy regarding public health. Since I already have had substantial experience working in a county political office, I’m eager to learn about additional perspectives and pathways that public health issues can be tackled from. I particularly look forward to pursuing my growing area of interest in community violence prevention in South Los Angeles.

Sydney: There is increasing public awareness of the importance of behavior for health, well-being, and longevity. My goal is to continue developing a program of research investigating the behavioral contributions to disease risk throughout the lifespan, and to translate these findings to tangible public health impacts.

What advice do you have for future grads?

Amanda: Be on time, prepared, and enthusiastic. That will always get you a long way.

Eric: I would advise future graduates to get to know your peers and professors, and be active in your graduate degree. Two years is more than enough time to develop relationships and improve your portfolio to show employers or PhD programs that you’ve had an incredible journey. The best person to help you get what you want is yourself, so go out there and get it today!

Jasmine: My advice to future grads is to enter into the program lighthearted and to remain grounded in their purpose for pursuing the degree. I would encourage graduates to find ways to make their scholarship always stay in service to the communities that they work with and for. My advice is to vacillate between peace and joy and to remember that even when facing challenges, all situations are coming to them for the reclamation of their peace and ultimately their highest good.

Jennifer: Attend seminars, workshops, and events of your career interest; potential employers will be there, and you can network with individuals already working in the career field you want to pursue. Invest in your professional development. Make business cards; always have some with you and don’t be shy to hand them out in networking events. Network, network, network! Can’t emphasize that enough! Ultimately, what you put into it, is what you get out of it. “Throw spaghetti on the wall, something is bound to stick.” Basically, never give up and always try. Nothing comes easy but let passion be your greatest motivator and driver because it may take you through the most unexpected experiences and places. Lastly, be kind to everyone. You never know who you’ll interact with or who is watching you. It can always work to your benefit or against you.

Karen: I know it is never easy, but you will get there eventually. Hang in there!!

Kayla: Network! This includes with your professors! Do not be afraid to ask for opportunities or to put yourself out there find an opportunity. Network as much as you can through attending MaPHSA events, your practicum contacts and going to the career fair! Also read the career fair emails for jobs and fellowships.

Sydney: Know that you belong here. Don’t let fears and insecurities cloud your goals and reasons for entering your field.

Don’t let fears and insecurities cloud your goals and reasons for entering your field.

Sydney G. O’Connor

Photos (left to right) by Andrew Zaw, Naiyu Chen, Kim Cohen, Asim Akhter, Andrew Zaw, Andrew Zaw and Darryl Nousome.

Community outreach inspires salutatorian to think outside the clinic

The aspiring surgeon has helped the homeless get to medical appointments and find available resources — and he’s just getting started

Every week, Sammy Cohen heads to Skid Row, the part of Downtown Los Angeles known for its large homeless population.

Roughly 5,000 folks live on the streets there, according to a 2017 count.

Working at homeless shelters, Cohen, 21, stands close as doctors perform checkups and give referrals to homeless patients. It’s part of the Mobile Clinic at USC program.

“There’s not a lot of places you can get those hands-on experiences,” said Cohen, a USC senior and one of the two USC 2018 salutatorians, who has plans to be a pediatric orthopedic surgeon.

Working on Skid Row, Cohen noticed that while patients wanted to continue treatment, getting to doctor’s appointments across town was difficult.

“They didn’t have a way to get there,” he said, adding that public transit was unpredictable.

Cohen came up with an idea: What if student volunteers helped them get to the appointments?

“That increased the follow-up rate from 15 percent to over 95 percent now,” he said.

They use Uber, which reimburses rides the students take with the homeless patients.

Riding together has been a way to build rapport with the patients, many who have lost trust in doctors or the health care system, said Cohen, who is majoring in health promotion and disease prevention at the Keck School of Medicine of USC with a minor in health care studies at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Read the full story on USC News »

Q&A

Why did you choose the degree program you’re in?

I chose the Bachelor of Science in Health Promotion & Disease Prevention from the Keck School of Medicine of USC because it emphasizes an interdisciplinary approach to medicine. I knew that I was going to need to learn core sciences like biology, chemistry and physics in preparation for medical school, but I wanted my other courses to focus on the human components of medicine in a more intimate setting. I wanted to learn about cultural competence, Eastern and alternative medicine, and the social determinants of health because regardless of how well we can regurgitate information from textbooks, if we cannot interact with our patients and connect and communicate with them on a personal level, our scientific knowledge is rendered useless.

What has been your biggest accomplishment in the time you pursued this degree?

I feel my biggest accomplishments have occurred outside of the classroom. For the student organization USC Mobile Clinic, I created a program where undergraduates such as myself transport homeless patients to follow up medical appointments after we set up primary care clinics at local homeless shelters. I developed a meaningful relationship with one of the patients whom I met through the program and worked with him to secure permanent housing. The message he sent to me the day he received the news that he would no longer be homeless was one of my greatest moments at USC.

Another one of my biggest accomplishments stemmed from the research I conducted at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles studying the social determinants of health. The research I performed confirmed that there were many unmet non-medical needs of families visiting the Emergency Department such as a need for food banks, primary care doctors and safe housing services. I presented my research at the Pediatric Academic Societies international conference and have worked with my research mentors to launch a community resources help desk in the CHLA Emergency Department so that families can learn about community resources in their area. The help desk will be run by USC students via a directed research course that I helped to create. The course is at full occupancy for next semester!

What’s an important lesson you learned?

My experiences both in the CHLA Emergency Department and working with the homeless population have taught me the art of listening before judging. This lesson was poignantly conveyed by a homeless man I befriended, who, I was shocked to discover, has a doctorate from UCLA. Unfortunate circumstances had left him homeless and needy. His story was far more common than I previously believed, teaching me the perils of stereotyping and reinforcing the concept that behind every patient is a story that must be told and heard.

What’s one of your favorite memories from the time spent in your program?

One of my favorite memories from my time spent in the program was working with the other Keck Student Ambassadors at the Los Angeles Food Bank. This was an amazing opportunity to bond with the other KSA members while giving back to the community. The several hours that we worked there early on Saturday mornings exemplified to me what it means to be a member of the Trojan Family: to create and participate in programs that migrate beyond USC’s gates to advance a greater good.

What are you doing after you graduate?

After I graduate, I will continue my work at CHLA, ensuring the smooth launch of the CHLA CHAT (Community Health Advocates Team) program in the Emergency Department. I will also continue my work at USC and act as an advisor for the USC Mobile Clinic, Keck Student Ambassadors, and WorldMed @ UPC organizations that were so instrumental to my college career. I will then apply to medical school and aspire to become a pediatric orthopedic surgeon

What do you look forward to in your career path?

I’ve realized from my time at USC that although science is integral to any health profession, what makes the field of medicine so desirable is the people who compose it. Every day I go to work I will have the opportunity to improve the lives of those whom I interact with. I especially look forward to the first patient whom I heal, which will make the hours of hard work and dedication required to break into the field absolutely worth it.

What advice do you give to future grads?

I would advise future graduates to take advantage of USC’s unique location by constantly searching for opportunities to serve the community. The most important lessons that I’ve learned at USC have come from experiences in the community rather than in the classroom. Additionally, by joining organizations early in your college career, you will find a community of students who have similar interests as you, enabling you to meet friends that make a school of nearly 17,000 undergrads feel more like home.

— by Joanna Clay

(USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)