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From MPH to CDC

Jenny Dills

Hometown: Columbia, MO
Current position: Health Communications Specialist, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Graduated from MU: BA 2006; MPH 2009 

Q: Can you describe your position with the Center for Disease Control?

I am a Health Communications Specialist in the Division of Violence Prevention. Our division is in the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Up until this year, I’d been working as a Health Scientist, but I just made the switch to communications.

Q: What has been your career path from your undergraduate experience to your current position?

A: I wouldn’t say I had a linear path to get from there to here. I studied English and Women’s and Gender Studies at Mizzou. I loved literature and learning about women’s health and advocacy. I had every intention of going into student affairs to work in a women’s center at a university. After I graduated, I lived in Colorado for a year to figure things out and stare at mountains. An old advisor reached out to tell me that Mizzou was starting an MPH program. She thought it might be a good fit – turns out she was right! I was instantly attracted to health promotion, policy, and population-level impact. There were so many public health issues that I didn’t know were public health issues!

As part of my MPH, I interned at the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence (MCADSV) where I focused on supporting the Coalition’s growing prevention efforts. After finishing my MPH, I stayed at the Coalition for another 3 years. MCADSV was a CDC grantee and I got to know many of the staff in Atlanta. When a fellowship opportunity arose in the Division of Violence Prevention, I jumped at the chance. After my 2-year service fellowship, I started as an FTE. I don’t plan on leaving anytime soon!

Q: Why did you decide to go through the MPH Program at MU?

A:  I love Mizzou and I love Columbia. It was a no-brainer to come back home for graduate school. When I started, the MPH program was just getting off the ground. Faculty and staff were committed to the success of the program and of students, as they continue to be. The University had made a commitment to bring public health to campus, so when the program started, the enthusiasm was palpable.

Q: How did your education at the University of Missouri prepare you for your future career?

A: The MPH program prepared me with real-world applications of public health principles. My coursework gave me the skills I needed (and some I didn’t know I needed – biostatistics!) to understand how to be successful in a career. My English degree gave me critical thinking and communication skills which are immensely important in public health. It’s not enough that scientists and researchers understand each other – communicating public health messages to the public is what matters.

I didn’t do a traditional internship in that the organization I worked for wasn’t a public health agency. With that, I was able to learn about non-profits and see how they fit into the big public health picture. The program also gave me exposure to more traditional public health through faculty and staff with broad experience in the field.

Q: What is the most rewarding part of your career?

A: I have been lucky to work on the issues of domestic and sexual violence at the national, state, and local level. I’ve seen the difference advocacy makes in the lives of survivors and their families. Now I’m focusing on preventing violence before it starts. I truly believe that violence is not inevitable.

Q: What attracted you to the CDC?

A: First, I was interested in working with the states and communities being funded by the Division of Violence Prevention. Providing training and technical assistance is something I love, and CDC was an opportunity to expand that reach. Second, I wanted to work with and learn from the scientists studying violence prevention.

For me, CDC is the center of the public health world. It informs the work of communities and learns from the lessons and successes of those communities. I wanted to be a part of that.

Q: What are some of the opportunities available as career paths within CDC?

A: There are so many opportunities for professional development and growth at CDC. You work collaboratively on projects with scientists, policy experts, statisticians, health communicators, and administrators so you really get a sense of everyone’s role in public health. There are veterans, lawyers, social workers, psychologists, educators, and so many more professions that make up the workforce.

Additionally, as emergencies occur, there are often opportunities for temporary assignments to address immediate needs. I have colleagues who worked on both Ebola and Zika.

Q: What advice do you have for someone who hopes to follow a similar career path?

A: CDC is a fantastic place to work. Folks here share a passion for their work and for improving the health and safety of communities. I would encourage someone who wants to work here to spend some time on the ground, in communities, seeing “boots on the ground” public health in action. It’s easy to forget that what we are doing here at CDC is reaching millions of Americans where they live, work, and play.