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Arnold School of Public Health

  • Keen with another student and Barack Obama's step grandmother

Public health student gains hands-on experience in infectious diseases and global health through study abroad programs

March 5, 2018 | Erin Bluvas, 

It was Deborah Keen’s mother who first sparked Keen’s interest in public health. “She worked for a pharmaceutical company developing infectious disease medications during my childhood,” says Keen, who calls her mother her greatest mentor. “It was through those take-your-child-to-work days and talking to her that I gained such an interest in infectious diseases.”

Now a junior studying public health with a minor in statistics, Keen has known she wanted to pursue a career in epidemiology since her junior year in high school. It was also during high school that the Hopewell, N.J., native first traveled to Kenya—a country to which she would later return as a college student. Altogether, Keen has visited all 50 states and more than 25 countries. It’s a trend she hopes to continue in her career.

“My dream job is to work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in infectious diseases, particularly emerging infectious diseases, and work for their Epidemic Intelligence Service,” she says. “I hope to be able to travel abroad more after I get my degree to see the impact of infectious diseases first hand.”

Keen made her first undergraduate trip abroad in May of 2017 through the USC in Costa Rica: Global Health program, where she took classes from associate professor of health promotion, education, and behavior (HPEB) David Simmons, clinical associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics Myriam Torres, and clinical assistant professor of HPEB Edena Meetze. For her next adventure, Keen went further and longer—this time to Kenya through the USC Study Abroad Office

Returning to Kenya for an entire semester (Fall 2017) was a different experience than the brief visit she had made as a high school student, and Keen immersed herself in the experience. The Presidents’ List recipient first studied at the School for International Training Program and then engaged in a research project on community perceptions of HIV vaccines in Western Kenya. As a researcher, Keen worked with local community health volunteers to conduct surveys and focus groups in the field. During the program, she lived at homestays in Simenya and Kisumu. She also traveled to Rwanda and Uganda and managed to learn Swahili.

“I learned to adapt to a wide variety of situations and to have an appreciation for a culture that is so different from my own,” Keen says. “In addition, I really narrowed down what I would like to do in the future, and this experience helped to shape my future career path. I also feel like I have a really valuable first-hand perspective when discussing public health issues and practices now.”

In the past five years, Keen has been recognized with the Diplomacy Award from the Kenyan Ambassador to the United States (for her efforts during high school) and the American Legion Award for Selfless Service. On campus, she also serves at the service director for USC service sorority, Omega Phi Alpha. 

“Look for opportunities to experience public health challenges first hand because these types of experiences will be valuable throughout your academic career and help you bring your own perspective to public health issues,” she advises other students. “It’s also a good idea to get to know your public health professors because they will have great advice and bring unique experiences to the table.”

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