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Arnold School of Public Health


I Am Public Health: Mark Guinter

April 1, 2015 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu 

When Mark Guinter was an undergraduate studying integrative physiology at the University of Iowa, he imagined a career in medicine. However, after volunteering at a hospital and discussing his options with some physicians, he ultimately realized that medicine was not the perfect fit he had envisioned. “I quickly learned that I was attracted to the prevention of disease rather than its treatment,” Guinter says.

He still wanted to help people improve their health and began to learn more about public health. “I have a natural curiosity, and I believe in the promise of prevention—both of which seem to meet at some capacity in the field of epidemiology,” Guinter says. “Similar to a career in medicine, I would still be able to contribute to the improvement of health as an epidemiologist but on a much broader scale.”

With his career goals redefined, Guinter obtained a Master of Public Health degree in epidemiology from the University of Louisville. During this time, he built on his previous undergraduate research experience, which involved a clinical trial that evaluated alternatives to aspirin and their effects on obese and elderly individuals. As a masters’ student, Guinter spent consecutive summers in his native Chicago working with internationally-known environmental epidemiologist and director of the Center for Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention Habibul Ashan. He was able to assist with the initial phases of the Center’s Chicago Multiethnic Prevention and Surveillance Study, which will examine the underlying causes for ethic/racial disparities and how lifestyle, healthcare-related factors, environment and genetics affect chronic disease.

In selecting a program of study for his doctoral degree, there were three factors that made the Arnold School stand out. Guinter’s interests in modifiable behaviors and chronic disease, particularly cancer risk factors, outcomes and disparities, are well supported by faculty expertise and research projects. “Between the Cancer Prevention and Control Program and the Center for Research in Nutrition and Health Disparities, I knew that there would be a lot of good opportunities for research,” he says.
Guinter was also looking for mentors. He met associate professor Susan Steck during the early stages of the application process and knew right away that she would be an excellent person to guide him. He was right. “Dr. Steck is always looking for projects that I can get involved in to advance my CV and help refine my research skills,” Guinter says. “In our short time together, she’s taught me to look at research questions or topics from a different angle to try and identify what other researchers may have overlooked.”

Finally, Guinter couldn’t ignore the attractive professional development and financial support programs USC offered. Not only is Guinter a Presidential Fellow, but he is also a trainee in USC’s Behavioral-Biomedical Interface Program (BBIP). BBIP trains behavioral scientists to function effectively in interdisciplinary research teams, preparing them for careers in the health sciences. With funding from a National Institutes of Health T32 pre-doctoral research training grant, students build a comprehensive foundation of coursework across epidemiology, exercise science and psychology and gain research experience through three 10-week lab rotations.

Guinter recommends public health to prospective students who want to make an impact with far-reaching implications. “With epidemiology, I think you need to be comfortable with making connections to collaborate because you won’t be the expert in everything you want to study,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help from mentors and other experts across different disciplines.” Guinter also notes that it helps to be self-motivated in order to continue searching for underlying associations, making sure that a study’s design, method, etc. are most appropriate for the research question at hand.

While Guinter goes back and forth these days as to whether his ideal career will take place in the context of academia or a government agency, his motivation is well intact. “My resulting career path will hopefully have far-reaching implications and an endless capacity of questions yet to be answered,” he says. “Whatever the setting, my work will involve identifying nutritional and other behavior-related risk factors that can help prevent chronic disease.”