Public Health

FIU-Stempel College student tapped as ambassador for national public health program

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Patrice Lewis ’24 pinpoints her early trips to hospitals as the catalyst for pursuing a career in health.  

“I was visiting loved ones who ended up passing away due to diseases that could have been avoidable with better knowledge and promotion of health,” Patrice says. She was 12 years old then, living in St. Lucia, an island country in the Caribbean, where noncommunicable disease and heart disease were among the leading cause of death.

Health care in St. Lucia has since gone through notable advancements. “We have a much more skilled workforce in terms of medicine and even public health, as well as increased resources provided to our island,” she adds. “Seeing how lives can be preserved from preventable illnesses with the right information and the motivation to access health care made me want to get into the health field and make a difference.”

Today, Patrice, a master’s student studying epidemiology at FIU’s Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work, was nominated and selected to be part of the 2023-2024 cohort for the This Is Public Health (TIPH) Ambassador Program. The program, launched by the Association of Schools & Programs of Public Health (ASPPH), empowers more than 80 graduate students from across the country to raise awareness about public health issues, careers, and education.

Patrice shares more about her journey.  

You’re now an ambassador for the TIPH program. How’s it going?

I think it's a great program. They have a lot carved out for us. Of course, it is a time commitment, but what you get out of it –like the networking and the training– so far has been really intriguing and exciting. It’s a great opportunity as well to get yourself out there and just learn about what people are doing in other schools. It has been really rewarding and I would encourage anyone who's interested to talk to your academic advisor about it.

Your early experiences drove you to study public health, but what inspired you to concentrate on epidemiology?

Patrice Lewis preparing COVID-19 samples under the
biosafety cabinet for the extraction process of PCR

I was always interested in public health from my early childhood experiences visiting family in hospitals. However, for my bachelor’s, I decided to focus on chemistry, and after getting my degree, I worked a bit in a molecular biology lab during the pandemic doing COVID-19 testing. I saw the need firsthand for public health and of course epidemiology studies, especially when it came to infectious diseases. So, I decided that was what I wanted to do and here I am.

What drew you to FIU?

I've always been interested in the university. It’s very well known among Caribbean countries—I’ve known about it since high school. When I was deciding on where to go for my master's degree, I was like, you know what, I've always wanted to come to FIU. I love the diverse community that we have here, and of course, the tropical climate.  

What do you aspire to do once you graduate?

Well, I've been on a pre-med track, and I enjoy research. I'm still debating between getting my Ph.D. in epidemiology or going to med school. But I do see the need to incorporate epidemiology studies and research as a physician. This would allow me to be able to investigate health problems and come up with solutions that can support the community.

Do you have a mentor?

My mentor is Diana Sheehan, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology. She actually took me under her wing after I got assigned to work with her through a Stempel College research award. Under her, I have worked on research involving HIV studies, from COVID-19 impacts to adherence to antiretroviral therapy amongst minority groups. I am also learning both quantitative and qualitative data analysis methods using NVivo and statistical programming languages to clean and wrangle data. This is an important part of the data analysis process in order to accurately identify trends in data and then communicate reliable results to the public.

I recently began my new post as a graduate assistant on Dr. Sheehan's HIV & COVID-19 Community Study, with the FIU Research Center in Minority Institutions. I am grateful to be continuing research with her for the rest of my academic journey here at FIU. I am also grateful for the tremendous support from my professors and colleagues at Stempel College who have continued to encourage me along this journey.

What advice would you give to a student who may be interested in following in your footsteps?

I would say let passion be what drives you and fuels your determination. Also, get under the right mentorship. My mentors have made a great impact on my life in terms of helping me navigate this new field. So, I would say pursue your purpose with passion despite challenges that may arise along the journey, get under the right mentorship, learn to network/build community, and just be disciplined at whatever it is that you decide to do.