Why the Best Plan is a Flexible Plan

By: Cassie Kersten – 1st Year – Epidemiology

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My husband and our (grumpy) cats, Pearl and Elphie.

Coming to Rollins, I had no idea what my life would look like. I was moving across the country from Minnesota to Atlanta, GA. I was giving up a steady income at a relaxed research position in cancer research at Mayo Clinic to pursue a crazy dream of becoming an infectious disease epidemiologist and working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Even though I had my husband and my cats to support me, I didn’t know what would happen next—so I decided to make a plan.

Starting the school year, I saw my graduate degree as a checklist. I thought I would gain the skills, gain the experiences, get my degree, and have a fulfilling career. It looked something like this:

Step 1: Get a Rollins Earn and Learn (REAL) job at the CDC.

Step 2: Join 1-2 Student Organizations. Don’t get too involved—work is what really matters!

Step 3: Do well in courses.

Step 4: Network to find a practicum and thesis.

Step 5: Success! (aka graduation and a good job)

So, I began to work my way through the checklist. I was hired for a CDC REAL position in the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine working on pandemic influenza preparedness. I also began a supplementary position working in the biology department as a lab instructor to make some money on the side. I applied to the Student Outbreak and Response Team (SORT) and was accepted. Things were going really well and Rollins was helping me achieve all my goals!

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2018 and 2019 SORT co-presidents with Dean Curran

Yet, some of my most rewarding experiences have been through the deviations from my plan and from networking with other students. In the fall semester, I decided to run for co-president of SORT. I like to joke with my friends that SORT now owns me—yet, I love every second of it. Through being co-president of SORT, I’ve gotten to network with professionals at the local, state, and federal levels—which has been personally rewarding and also helped me build a strong network. In early April, we will be hosting a networking event featuring Dr. Stephen Redd, Deputy Director for Public Health Service and Implementation Science and Director for the Center for Preparedness and Response (CPR) at the CDC as our keynote speaker—I can’t wait!  Through another club, the Emory Students for One Health (ESOH), I have been able to go on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Georgia Aquarium and learn about the utility of marine mammals as indicators for human health. What a fun and unique experience!

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Adventure to the Georgia Aquarium with ESOH

Further, graduate school is a fantastic time for creating an internal network! I’ve made friends from a variety of backgrounds—public school teachers, former CDC interns, Peace Corps & AmeriCorps volunteers, fellow scientists, and students straight out of undergrad—each bringing a unique perspective to the table. Emory has facilitated many events to make these connections, such as the Graduate Student Formal at the College Football Hall of Fame, volunteer opportunities for Martin Luther King Day, and Epidemiology bagel breakfasts and ice cream socials.

So, as you plan to start your academic career at Rollins, I encourage you to create a plan—but then deviate from it, at least a little. Step out of your comfort zone. Learn something new. Do something solely because you love it. Embrace this adventure and all the people who will be taking it with you!

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Epidemiology Department Ice Cream Social