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Arnold School of Public Health


HSPM DrPH grad builds informatics expertise with CDC fellowship, assists with Ebola and HIV outbreaks

June 30, 2015 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu 

Brittani Harmon considers herself a “professional student,” and she doesn’t plan to stop learning any time soon, even if she’s not technically enrolled at a university. After back to back bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Harmon moved right into her doctoral program in the Arnold School of Public Health’s Department of Health Services Policy and Management in 2010. She graduated just three short years later and began her first of two fellowships—so far.

“I didn’t know public health existed before I started college as a biology major,” she says. “I switched to public health sciences just a week into my freshmen year, and I haven’t looked back since.” Her undergraduate program at Clemson University shifted Harmon’s interests from medical school to long-term care, and she decided to pursue a Master of Health Administration degree at the Arnold School. Her graduate assistantship at Agape Senior during her master’s program turned into a full-time position throughout her doctoral program. During her four years at the long-term care facility, she worked in their information technology department, sharpening her informatics expertise. Harmon also served as a health educator on diabetes for Palmetto Health during her graduate programs. “I worked with the community services part of Palmetto Health where they put 10% of profits back into the community,” she says. “I helped educate the community on diabetes prevention, and it got me interested in chronic diseases.”

At the Arnold School, Harmon was building her informatics knowledge base with courses (e.g., Information Systems in Health Administration) and the practicum requirement for her DrPH. “I was able to apply what I had learned to a practice environment in a way that was useful to the organization,” she says. Harmon chose the DrPH over the more traditional PhD route to help prepare her for a career path as a public health practitioner. “I was able to apply what I learned in the classroom to the practice-based portion of the program, and I applied what I learned in the practice setting to my coursework,” says Harmon. “I feel the DrPH offered me some variety in how I can use my degree because I have the research and statistical skills as well as the practical/work experiences.”

During the hectic days of balancing classes and a full-time job, she leaned on her classmates for support. “They can motivate you in ways you wouldn’t motivate yourself—see things in you that you might not see in yourself,” Harmon says. “They can help you calm down and move forward.” She also invested time building a strong relationship with mentor and Professor Jan Probst. As Harmon’s dissertation chair and academic adviser, Probst provided unwavering support and a calming and witty presence during Harmon’s rapid completion of her doctoral program. “Dr. Probst has a way of making you laugh when you are the most stressed, therefore making you feel better about the situation,” she says. Still, as Harmon points out, the best mentor relationships build slowly. She explains, “mentor partners can develop naturally and need to be authentic in order to be successful.”

And to last. Just recently, Harmon contacted Probst to let her know about training opportunities for current Arnold School students at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) where she is a fellow. After graduating from her doctoral program in 2013, Harmon held a one-year Applied Public Health Informatics Fellowship at the Virginia Department of Health. As a fellow, she worked with HIV and STDs, implementing surveillance and other informatics systems. Now Harmon is half way through a two-year Public Health Informatics Fellowship at CDC. Working with the Obesity Prevention and Control Branch, she provides technical support on projects (e.g., Healthy Weight Project) and helps develop systems that enable hospital and health department electronic records to meet national standards.

As needs arise, Harmon drops everything to participate in Info-Aids (i.e., short-term informatics assistance projects during which CDC sends a fellow to assist with a specific project). For her first Info-Aid, Harmon joined the emergency operations center at CDC headquarters for five months to examine staff deployment in response to the Ebola outbreak. She also helped the Ebola Evaluation Team develop strategies to improve current Ebola response efforts as well as CDC preparation for future public health emergency responses.

A more recent Info-Aid project led Harmon to Indiana where she spent three weeks providing informatics assistance in reaction to the HIV outbreak. Harmon traveled between the rural town of Austin and Indianapolis several times each week to help with business process analysis, project management and the design/development of a database that would help the state health department collect data on HIV-positive cases by integrating multiple data sources.

Witnessing how the two different outbreaks were handled showed Harmon how she could use the skills she had developed over the years to help when there is an emergency. “There are so many different components to an outbreak and ways that you can assist,” she says. “I never would have thought that informatics would have been such a central piece, but informatics is necessary even though it is not a well-known field.” Harmon says she gained a lot of skills from being thrown into those situations—including being flexible and open-minded. “One of the goals of the fellowship,” she adds, “is to help other organizations learn that these types of outbreaks are just as much informatics problems as epidemiology challenges.”

For her fellowship capstone project, Harmon will determine how open data platforms (e.g., making government data available to the public) can be better utilized to improve population health. “We’re trying to make all indicators—nutrition, physical activity, breastfeeding, etc.—open to the general public in an effort to create transparency and engage the public in public health,” she says.

The eternal student, Harmon would like to continue learning with her next position after she completes her fellowship. “I will definitely stay in informatics, but I’d possibly work more with epidemiology,” she says. “I’d like to be involved in prevention informatics—using informatics to help prevent disease from happening in the first place—as opposed to the more common method of using intervention to correct existing issues.”  Now that she has private, local, state and federal-level experience, international opportunities might be the next logical step. Wherever she lands, she knows she can count on Probst to serve as a reference. “With great mentorships, the relationship continues even after you graduate and becomes mutually beneficial,” says Harmon. “I let her know what’s going on in the field that might interest her students, and she keeps me posted on what’s going on at the Arnold School.”