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Arnold School of Public Health


I Am Public Health: Marsha Samson

July 1, 2016 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu 

Many graduate degrees can turn a student into an expert in a particular topic, method, or approach, but it’s up to the individual to determine the breadth and depth of that expertise and then make it happen. Marsha Samson, a Ph.D. candidate in epidemiology who graduates in August, embraced that challenge throughout her doctoral program—gaining experience with mentors from fields across the University to become an expert in cancer epidemiology with experience in many other areas as well.

Raised in both Miami and Haiti, Samson speaks English, French, Creole, and a bit of Spanish. The diverse backdrop of her upbringing exposed Samson to health inequities between Haitian and U.S. populations. “Growing up, I always wondered why people in Haiti get so sick?” she says. “It’s so close to Miami, for example, but Haiti has a lot more diseases, and so I started becoming aware of health disparities and socio-economic disadvantages and what that really meant.”

I think the Ph.D. is for epidemiologic methods—learning to be an expert in the field—but we need to take it upon ourselves to diversify.

-Marsha Samson, Ph.D. Candidate in Epidemiology

Samson decided she would build a career that would help answer these questions and provide solutions. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biomathematics from Florida State University and then immediately began a dual master’s program in Health Services Administration and Public Health at Barry University. It was during this time that she first encountered epidemiology. “I took a class in biostatistics and epidemiology, and I really loved it,” Samson says. “I felt like that’s what I’d been looking for my entire life, and I really felt like I could apply it to the infectious diseases that plague Port-au-Prince, Haiti.”

As she neared the end of her master’s program, Samson began applying to the Top 20 schools in epidemiology, and that’s how she found the Arnold School. She applied to other universities as well but was most attracted to Carolina’s Behavioral-Biomedical Interface Program (BBIP), which is supported by a National Institutes of Health T32 pre-doctoral research training grant and is designed for select students who are beginning their doctoral studies in epidemiology, exercise science, or psychology. “When I received the grant and my acceptance, I knew that USC would be the winner,” she says. “The warm weather also helped sway me.”

At the Arnold School, she studied cancer research as a main focus of health disparities, comparing African American and European American populations in S.C. She also looked at health outcomes related to breast cancer, colorectal cancer, diabetes and stroke. But she didn’t stop there. To diversify even further, Samson reached out to researchers in exercise science, pharmacy, philosophy, nursing and other departments to apply the epidemiologic methods she learned through her program.

Remain flexible because you don’t know where you will be in the future, and it’s important to learn everything that you can during the program and to diversify your portfolio.

-Marsha Samson, Ph.D. Candidate in Epidemiology

“A lot of people don’t work with certain programs because they have an image of what they would like their career to look like in 10 years, and they think that their focus in the program has to be exactly the same,” she says. “I think the Ph.D. is for epidemiologic methods—learning to be an expert in the field—but we need to take it upon ourselves to diversify. To understand how to assess nutritional epidemiology, physical activity epidemiology, pharmacological epidemiology, mapping, and combining all of these different facets of epidemiology is really important as you continue in your career.”

Samson points out that diversifying one’s portfolio is particularly essential because researchers are beginning to recognize that every area in the field of public health is connected, and in many cases, merging. “Being able to understand what seem to be independent fields—being able to understand maternal and child health for example—may help you later on in understanding physical activity or diabetes and chronic disease management. Remain flexible because you don’t know where you will be in the future, and it’s important to learn everything that you can during the program and to diversify your portfolio.”

The 2016 Outstanding Epidemiology Student of the Year practices what she preaches outside the classroom as well. At ENVIRON, Samson has learned about environmental health exposures, such as benzene and asbestos, and outcomes like mesothelioma and other rare cancers. She has been involved with the South Carolina Cancer Alliance, reducing childhood obesity, pregnancy prevention, and the Geographical Management of Cancer Health Disparities Program (GMaP) within the Cancer Prevention and Control Program. Samson also worked as a pre-doctoral fellow with Saha Global to empower locals in remote areas of Ghana to increase access to water and solar energy through an entrepreneurial format that centered around community engagement.

Marsha has wowed the faculty with her initiative, creativity and independence...I believe that she is poised to be a scientific leader in the field of cancer epidemiology and disparities.

-Swann Adams, Associate Professor of Nursing and Epidemiology & Biostatistics

Samson’s initiative throughout her doctoral program has resulted in a well-rounded portfolio in both depth and breadth of expertise that will serve her well as she pursues a career where she can improve public health for populations in underserved areas, such as Haiti and rural areas in S.C. Her initiative has also resulted in 10 peer-reviewed publications and a Delta Omega Poster Session Award from the American Public Health Association. Through it all, Samson has remained committed to maintaining her own health and spreading the message about the importance of physical activity and nutrition as she believes these elements form the cornerstone to preventing illness and improving public health.

“Marsha has wowed the faculty with her initiative, creativity and independence,” says Swann Adams, who holds dual appointments in nursing and epidemiology and served as Samson’s dissertation chair. “I believe that she is poised to be a scientific leader in the field of cancer epidemiology and disparities.”