Student-athlete helps relaunch Columbus public health camp

Olympic hopeful uses summer internship to introduce public health to teens

Anthony Rodriguez
Five people harvest cabbage at farm

Katelyn Abeln, standing left, harvests cabbage at Ohio State's Waterman Farm with four campers from Columbus' Camp Public Health 

After COVID shuttered Columbus Public Health’s summer camp for middle schoolers for two years, public health sociology undergraduate Katelyn Abeln took on the challenge of relaunching the program during her summer capstone project.

As an intern, she led the effort to teach 12- to 15-year-old students about the ways public health impacts their lives during Camp Public Health, a weeklong experience that includes a visit to Ohio State’s Columbus campus.

The 2022 summer campers learned about water testing at a community pool, nutrition both for general health and its role in cancer treatment, health equity, gun safety, suicide prevention, and ways to develop coping skills for mental health.

“My whole goal was to make sure there was something for everyone because public health is so diverse and the kids we had at the camp were also a diverse group,” said Abeln, who was instrumental in relaunching the science camp after a two-year hiatus because of the COVID pandemic.

Organizing the event provided her the chance to meet with many departments within Columbus Public Health to learn about the expansive opportunities in the field and discover ways to connect with young people.

“I’ve never had this much responsibility in an internship before — it’s my first public health internship. It was all new to me to see public health at a local health department. I really loved the atmosphere and getting to meet with all the different sections and departments,” Abeln said.

“I’m really grateful for the experience. It was such an amazing opportunity.”

Women standing in lobby with group of students gathered in background
Katelyn stands in the Cunz Hall lobby as campers learn about public health advocacy.

The internship and camp showed Abeln new ways that public health can make an impact, said Keairah McNeary, a human resources representative with the City of Columbus and Abeln’s capstone supervisor.

 “Our Center for Public Health Innovation looks at health equity. The kids were surprised, and even Katelyn was surprised” by the breadth of opportunities, McNeary said.

“I think it really opened everyone’s eyes to what different positions are inside of public health.”

Finding her fit

A Georgia native and first-generation college student, Abeln was recruited to the university to join Ohio State’s pistol team. She knew Ohio State would be great for the next phase of her education, but the support she received from academic and athletics advisors along with her visit to Columbus cemented her decision, she said.

Stepping on campus in 2019 Abeln had planned to follow her childhood ambitions to become a doctor. She was a biology major on the pre-med track but quickly realized it wasn’t the path for her.

“At the end of my first semester, I was looking for a new major,” she said. “It was a bit of a shock when I realized it wasn’t for me.”

Abeln explored her options at Ohio State and discovered her interests in disease, outbreaks and pandemics was public health. “It feels like I’ve known about public health my whole life. I just didn’t know it had a term for it.”

One of her first classes, Introduction to Global Public Health, connected all her interests.

“My professor starts going over what we’re going to learn – pandemics, epidemics, historical figures in public health, who created the smallpox vaccine – and I think, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be. This is my field,’ ” Abeln said.

Little did she realize that shortly after starting her major in public health sociology she would be learning about pandemics first-hand.

Katelyn is in her senior season on Ohio State's pistol team.

Life of a Public Health student-athlete

Along with navigating college as a first-gen student and finding her way to her future profession, Abeln also had to manage the jam-packed schedule that comes with being an Ohio State athlete.

Training. Studying. More training. Going to class. Traveling to competitions. Exams. It’s been a lot, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“The benefits of being an athlete and what I learned from my sport will help me later in life, helps me now,” Abeln said. “It teaches me so many different skills like dedication, leadership, time management, teamwork — skills I know I'll need in the workplace after I graduate.”

Along the way she’s won back-to-back national titles with the Buckeye pistol team, traveled the world representing Team USA Shooting and was selected as an alternate for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Eyes set to the future

With just one semester left before graduating, Abeln is thinking about her future as a public health professional. She’s applied for graduate school to pursue her Master of Public Health. At the top of her list: Ohio State.

While the internship with Columbus Public Health was a great experience to explore public health in a local setting, Abeln has her sights on becoming an epidemiologist who studies outbreaks around the world.

That global mentality will be essential to her athletic endeavors as well. She competed in international competitions in Cairo and Lima, Peru in October and November. Abeln has more world competitions slated in 2023 with her sights set on the U.S. Olympic Trials. All this, while she is breaking individual and team records in pistol during her senior season.

“Paris 2024 is on my radar right now. So I’m on the World Cup circuit right now trying to qualify for different international matches and eventually, the Games.”

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About The Ohio State University College of Public Health

The Ohio State University College of Public Health is a leader in educating students, creating new knowledge through research, and improving the livelihoods and well-being of people in Ohio and beyond. The College's divisions include biostatistics, environmental health sciences, epidemiology, health behavior and health promotion, and health services management and policy. It is ranked 29th among all colleges and programs of public health in the nation, and first in Ohio, by U.S. News and World Report. Its specialty programs are also considered among the best in the country. The MHA program is ranked 8th, the biostatistics specialty is ranked 22nd, the epidemiology specialty is ranked 25th and the health policy and management specialty is ranked 17th.