LAVA talk inspires student pursuit of public health careers

On Friday, Feb. 1, Vassar alumna Lauren Shiman ’10 returned to campus as a guest speaker for a talk on Life After Vassar (LAVA). According to its official description, LAVA is a series of informal conversations with Vassar alums and others that guide mathematics and statistics students toward math-related careers following graduation. According to Associate Professor of Mathematics and Statistics Ming-Wen An, the official organizer of LAVA, Shiman’s talk is the first of a series this semester to be held on the first Friday of every month. “The main goal [for LAVA talks] is to introduce students and expose them [to the many opportunities out there],” she explained.

Shiman’s experiences during and after her time at Vassar reflect the type of career path toward which LAVA attempts to direct its attendees. At Vassar, Shiman was a math major on a pre-med track. After working at a hospital, she attended University of California, Berkeley, to earn her Master of Public Health (MPH). Now, she is a researcher and evaluator at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Shiman entered the talk brimming with energy. “It has been ages since the last time I was in this room,” she reminisced. In fact, the talk took place in Rockefeller Hall 310—the very room in which she presented her senior project.

Shiman started her presentation by introducing the concept of public health. According to Shiman, it is a broad subject that includes Epidemiology, Housing, Health Care, Education and many other disciplines pertaining to human welfare. She then introduced public health’s historical background, discussing the importance of John Snow’s evolutionary studies in 1854, which discovered that the Broad Street cholera outbreak was a result of contaminated water rather than infected air particles.

Shiman continued on to talk about her present work, which focuses on primary, human sources as opposed to data-driven ones. In her recent project “LGBTQ and Sex Education,” Shiman spoke with 26 LGBTQ centers in New York City, and shared their insights with the The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to advocate for structural changes in sexual health education. She was also involved in an exhibit titled “Undesign the Redline,” which took place in various cities throughout the winter of 2018 and will continue into 2019. Redlining was a policy in the 1930s that portrayed certain neighborhoods, particularly those inhabited by immigrants and people of color, as too dangerous for mortgages or loans. The exhibit demonstrates the historical development of the Redline policy, and how the community is working to “undesign” it. Shiman summarized part of her work, saying, “[I was] helping people understand what’s going on and representing the people.”

Although Shiman primarily works in communication with others, her mathematics education was critical to her career. The statistics class she took at Vassar, in fact, became one of her most useful tools. She said, “I have to be able to talk about what came out of the stats.”

For Will Kyle ’19, who recently secured a job creating software for hospitals, the talk proved a great opportunity to learn more about the work he will be doing in public health. “I need to learn as much as possible about the field, and the talk gave me the information I needed,” reflected Kyle.

The lecture transitioned into a conversation between Shiman and student attendees. In response to students’ questions, Shiman disclosed that she neither knew what public health was when she graduated from Vassar, nor did she enjoy the work she did at the hospital. In order to find a personally fulfilling career, she advised students, “[You should] write down the things that you actually like and the things you don’t, and check them off when you are looking at a job.” At Vassar, she took interesting classes that did not ostensibly relate to her career, such as Introduction to Psychology. At the time, she said, “[I thought it was just] one of the liberal arts thing you’re supposed to do.” However, Shiman frequently uses what she learned in Psychology when, for example, she analyzes how people think and from whence fear comes.

Shiman concluded with emphasis on the value of a liberal arts education, despite the perception that they fail to cater to analytical career paths. Her years at Vassar taught her vital skills such as problem solving and strong verbal and written communication. The opportunity to take classes in an assortment of disciplines exposes students to the various distinct applications of their particular majors. in other words, the liberal arts vision aligns with that of LAVA.

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