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Arnold School of Public Health


Epidemiology doctoral student contributes expertise to SC Rural Health Action Plan through consultant practicum

June 1, 2017 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu 

Growing up in rural Florida, Cassie Odahowski experienced the benefits and drawbacks of life in a small, agricultural town first hand. But it wasn’t until her grandfather was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer that she more fully understood the healthcare challenges faced by rural Americans. Odahowski was working as an epidemiologist in Orlando when she and her husband received the shocking news. With the closest radiation facility over an hour away from her hometown where her grandfather still lived, the entire family had to pitch in to get her grandfather to his daily treatments.

“I realized that the majority of rural Americans do not have the resources available to access specialized care and treatment,” says Odahowski. “This experience motivated me to go back to school for my Ph.D. to better understand cancer epidemiology and rural health.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences at Florida State University and a Master of Public Health form the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, Odahowski spent several years in the field of epidemiology with a focus on infectious diseases. After the revelation she experienced due to her grandfather’s illness, Odahowski shifted her focus to cancer epidemiology and rural health and did her homework to identify the best doctoral program to meet her new career goals. She was particularly looking for shared research interests and opportunities for one-on-one interactions with faculty.  

“I was thoroughly impressed with the faculty at USC and excited for the opportunity to work with Dr. Jan Eberth,” Odahowski says of her advisor. “She has been an amazing mentor and has taken the time to do more than oversee my research projects—she spends a great deal of time to also help me to develop as a professional and alert me to opportunities for my advancement.”

The Norman J. Arnold Doctoral Fellow also found a mentor in Health Sciences Distinguished Professor James Hébert. Odahowski works with Hébert through her graduate research assistantship at the Cancer Prevention and Control Program, which he has directed since 2003.

“Dr. Hébert provided insight for my Lung and Bronchus Cancer Mortality-to-Incidence Ratios project,” says Odahowski. “He has a wealth of knowledge from his years of experience in the field and always provides invaluable feedback.”

Odahowski found yet another home away from home at the South Carolina Office of Rural Health (SCORH), where she has been contributing to the South Carolina Rural Health Action Plan through a consulting practicum for the past year. The action plan, which will be released in November, will provide strategies for enhancing rural health outcomes over the next 3-5 years to improve rural health in the state. It will also provide solutions for attaining improved access to healthcare resources and a better understanding and shared accountability among health organizations and rural communities at the local and state level.

Developing this plan has involved collecting epidemiologic data, input from a task force of approximately 60 rural health experts from across South Carolina, and feedback from rural residents. Odahowski’s role involved compiling statistics comparing urban and rural health outcomes to present to the task force in order to craft a list of recommendations that prioritize what rural South Carolina needs to become healthier.  

She’s also helped conduct 14 community listening sessions, where she and SCORH staff presented the recommendations to rural community members, compiled feedback from attendees, and then reported the feedback to the task force so that the recommendations could be adjusted according to community priorities. “Dr. Graham Adams and Melinda Merrell at the SC Office of Rural Health have been tremendous in allowing me to be a part of the Rural Health Action Plan,” says Odahowski. “It has given me the opportunity to learn a great deal about health in rural South Carolina and interact with the rural communities.”

After she completes her degree, Odahowski will pursue a career in academia so that she can continue conducting research and teaching. In the meantime, she plans to enjoy her time at the Arnold School and at UofSC.

“I frequently tell people how much I LOVE it here. Not only has the Arnold School impressed me immensely, but the city of Columbia has as well,” says Odahowski, whose hobbies include running (she recently completed the Palmetto 200) and volunteering for health advocacy (she is a Volunteer Ambassador for the American Cancer Society Action Network). “There is always something going on in the Vista and on Main Street, and there is an abundance of outdoor activities available. The weather is great. The people here are incredibly friendly—southern charm is a real thing. I have loved it.”