Ohio State Public Health’s Erinn Aulfinger sat down with assistant professor Shawnita Sealy-Jefferson, PhD, MPH, who joined the College of Public Health’s Division of Epidemiology this academic year. Dr. Sealy-Jefferson has an MPH in public health practice from Wayne State University and a PhD in epidemiological sciences from the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health.
What made you decide to come to The Ohio State University?
I am originally from Detroit where there's a very striking racial disparity in preterm birth, the adverse birth outcome on which I focus. I found that Columbus’s preterm birth outcome is one of the worse in the country. There were no social epidemiologists here at Ohio State and the potential to create a social epidemiology class was appealing because a lot of students haven't been exposed to the subject discipline of social epidemiology which merges sociology and epidemiology together.
What drives your passion for public health?
Four things about who I am at my core make this work a perfect fit for me. The first thing about me is that I defy odds. I'm an epidemiologist and I calculate odds for a living, but I don't think the odds against me matter. Racial disparity in preterm birth has existed for a long time and it looks like we can't do anything about it, but I don't care what it looks like because I have never paid attention to the odds of whether I can do or try something. The second thing is that I fight injustice. In public health we have a moral imperative to fight for social justice. The third thing about me is I believe that God has my back and good will prevail over evil. And then the fourth thing about me is that I find and help underdogs. Trying to find solutions for groups that are suffering is my responsibility and a part of who I am.
How does the CPH community support you in developing this passion?
I have been here for six months but I have been overwhelmed by how the College of Public Health faculty and students seem to want me here. They seem to value my perspectives. I have the space and the freedom to just do my thing, and people seem to appreciate that I'm doing the work that I'm doing. I also feel supported in terms of my teaching as well. I'm just showing up and being my authentic self and the students seem to appreciate that. The part of my job that is most fulfilling to me is helping and inspiring students and encouraging them to do what they want to do and assuring them they can make a difference.
What research are you currently working on?
My doctoral training is in stroke epidemiology, so I do work on chronic diseases with the Women's Health Initiative. I also have been working on grant proposals that are focused on neighborhood-level factors like women's perceptions of their neighborhood and objective neighborhood disadvantage measures, like blight, and how that relates to preterm birth rates. I love my work. I would do this work for free.
What are some of your passions and interests outside of work?
My family motivates me and inspires me. I have a 15-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter. I am passionate about showing up and being present with my family once I leave work. My husband and I are very committed to activism, community service and leadership development in our community. I also like traveling and being outside. My work is hard sometimes and I have to be able to decompress. Relaxing with my family and friends is how I keep myself sane.