hshps student alumni spotlight

Many of our alumni credit the skills and experience they've gained while participating in HSHPS training programs to their success of their emerging careers.

december 2014

Katie with Acting Surgeon Rear Admiral Gen. Boris Lushniak, MD, MPH

Katie Stilwell, MPH

2011 Tropical Medicine and Global Health Program Fellow, Quito, Ecuador


How did you become interested in health and, in particular, Hispanic health issues?

When I was eight years old, I was in the waiting room of an orthopedic practice with my parents. A little boy had casts on each leg, up to his hips, and a bar separating his legs in an upside-down “V” formation. When he walked, it looked so uncomfortable to me and I felt so bad for him. We were still in the waiting room after his visit. The doctor removed the casts so the boy could now walk normally (although a little wobbly at first). He was so excited and trying to run down the hall. His mom chased after him, and the doctor was laughing hysterically. I thought it would be so amazing to give someone the ability to walk normally again. I declared to my parents, “I’m going to be an orthopedic surgeon!” Once I entered high school, I learned a lot more about Hispanic culture and really enjoyed studying Spanish. I fused my interest in medicine together with Hispanic culture and began focusing on health disparities and health conditions that affect Hispanic populations disproportionately. 


Did you have any models of health professionals growing up? If so, who and in what ways did they influence you?

It may seem odd, but my first interaction with a health professional that I can remember involved a veterinarian. My beloved cat managed to climb inside our car without our knowledge. She was seriously injured as soon as the car was turned on. Originally, the veterinarian was going to euthanize her, but when he saw my heart-broken five-year-old face, he performed surgery on my cat and splinted three of her legs. It was very difficult to keep the bandages clean, so the vet and his wife took care of her for an entire month without charging any money, except for the initial visit.  I had my cat for five years after that because of this man. I felt like anyone who had the ability to heal my pet, and to do so with such generosity, was someone to aspire to emulate.  Thanks, Dr. Fiddler!


What made you decide to participate in the Tropical Medicine and Global Health Training Program? (Note: This program no longer exists

I came across the HSHPS program after recently attaining my MPH degree in International Health and Development. The program seemed like a great opportunity to employ the knowledge I gained during graduate school. Also, I love traveling so that was an added bonus!   


What did a day in the life of your training program look like? 

Every day was completely unpredictable with new adventures all the time. It was amazing! For the first part of the program, we attended classes at the medical school in Quito. We learned about various parasites, vectors, snakes, and other health issues that affect Ecuadorians. After a couple weeks in the classroom, we began a series of trips to various regions of the country. We stayed everywhere from open-air hotels, to private family residences, hostels, and a building behind a small hospital. We visited a variety of health facilities and programs in the coastal regions, the mountains, and the edge of the rainforest. Private hospitals, public hospitals, public health initiatives funded by the University of Michigan, anti-malaria programs, the hut of a medicine man, and small local health clinics were all part of our training experience. 


What did you get out of the program?

The most important things I took from this experience were not the concrete skills I learned, but more, the intangible lessons that still impact me today.  I am much more acclimated to constantly changing conditions. I am humbled by the fact that when I am ill, I can receive medical attention almost immediately, while many others cannot. I do not have to sleep under a bed net, or take baths in freezing cold water when there is snow on the ground and no heat in my house.  I will likely never have to worry about Dengue Fever or birthing a child without pain medication. However, most of the people I encountered in these situations were not hardened by their circumstances. They still possessed a friendly, accepting, and helpful disposition. I always think about them when I am “sweating the small stuff” and try to dwell less on silly inconveniences. Furthermore, my Spanish-speaking ability increased tremendously on this trip, and I gained a level of cultural understanding that “tourists” seldom have the opportunity to experience. 


How has the program helped you move forward in your career? 

My acceptance into the program provided me with greater professional self-confidence. The life-lessons that I took away from Ecuador prepared me for interview situations, solving problems quickly, and prioritizing tasks appropriately and affectively, all of which are essential skills in the professional world.


What research/projects are you currently working on? 

Currently, I am employed as a food-borne and enteric epidemiologist for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. I work with two grant-funded programs, CDC’s FoodCORE and FDA’s MFRPS. I serve as Area Commander for outbreak investigations in restaurants, schools, and long-term care facilities when enteric illness is suspected. I conduct surveillance with South Carolina’s food complaint system. 


Where do you see yourself and your career going from here? 

I really enjoy the field of epidemiology, so I hope that I can continue in this field in some capacity. I would love to work internationally one day, hopefully before I retire! My current job provides me with many opportunities to gain hard skills and even challenges me to overcome my fear of public speaking, as I frequently participate in training sessions and presentations. I am always open to new opportunities, but after pining for an epidemiology job for so long, I feel very lucky to have a job that I love. I plan to continue to learn and grow professionally in my current role for the foreseeable future. 


What advice can you give to young people who have an interest in Hispanic health or the health professions?

The best advice I ever received is, “Do not be afraid to ask for something you want.  The worst thing that can happen is that someone will say no.” I missed out on many opportunities in high school and college because I had an irrational fear of hearing the word, “no.”  

For those who are non-native Spanish speakers like myself, it’s okay to look silly and make mistakes on your quest to fluency. It happens to all of us, and the sooner you get over it, the faster your language skills will develop. 

You can make your own opportunities for professional growth simply by “putting yourself out there,” no matter where you are.  After graduate school, I had no job, no money, and I was bored.  The recession was still in full force and Master’s-level jobs were very difficult to find.  I started volunteering in a domestic violence shelter so I could feel like a somewhat productive member of society.  Soon after, I was offered a paid position there.  Not long after that, two El Salvadorian human-trafficking victims arrived at the shelter during my shift.  Nightly conversations with them reignited my passion to work in Hispanic health, so I applied to HSHPS.  That opportunity led to another job, which led to the job I have currently.  If I had not decided to volunteer at the shelter, I have no idea where I would be today! 

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