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Arnold School of Public Health


I Am Public Health: Maggie Carson

May 1, 2019 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu 

“Growing up I knew I had a passion for helping people, but I just wasn’t sure how I would turn that into a career,” says environmental health sciences (ENHS) doctoral candidate Maggie Carson. “As an undergraduate, I was drawn to psychology because I loved learning about behavior and why people make certain decisions.”

Columbus, Ohio-born but Columbia, South Carolina-raised, Carson attended Presbyterian College for her undergraduate degree in psychology. It was after her 2014 graduation that she began to consider public health as a career path. Her father, James Carson, had spent nearly 20 years as a faculty member and chair in the Arnold School’s exercise science department, but his daughter was taken aback when she began to fully understand the depth and breadth of the field.   

He connected Carson with associate dean for undergraduate student affairs Sara Corwin and clinical associate professor Kara Montgomery, who helped her choose a master’s program. Throughout her Master of Public Health in Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior (HPEB) program, Carson worked full time as the computer lab manager at a middle school in West Columbia.

She also became increasingly interested in the interaction between human health and the environment. Through one of her first master’s courses, an ENHS core class, she met ENHS chair and clinical professor Geoff Scott.

“I loved learning about the multitude of environmental contaminants out there in the world and how those things, that are supposed to be helping humans, like flame retardants sprayed in buildings and on clothes, to help prevent fire, can actually lead to negative human health impacts,” says Carson, who knew she had found her passion when the class discussed water quality. “I loved the passion and extensive knowledge Dr. Scott brought to the subject, and so when we discussed the opportunity to stay and pursue my Ph.D., I knew it was an amazing opportunity to work with such an influential person to the environmental field.”

The Norman J. Arnold Fellow can trace her interest in water even further back when she reflects on international service trips to the Dominican Republic and India as an undergrad. She participated in discussions concerning clean drinking water during these travels—long before she knew that water quality was a field of study.

Water is a precious and essential resource, and I want my research to help protect it and therefore protect human health, because humans can’t survive without access to clean water.

-Maggie Carson, environmental health sciences doctoral candidate

“I remember being particularly drawn to these discussions and concerned for the people living in these countries, because if Americans weren’t able to drink the tap water for fear of getting sick, how did locals live with this water every day?” says the American Indian Graduate Center Science Graduate Scholar, who believes her Native American heritage has contributed to her passion towards environmental health and treating the planet with respect. “Water is a precious and essential resource, and I want my research to help protect it and therefore protect human health, because humans can’t survive without access to clean water.”

Carson is particularly interested in how different contaminants can enter water and negatively impact human health through either drinking water contamination or recreational contact exposure, such as swimming and boating. Her research focuses on harmful algal blooms and the toxins they produce.

Working with John Ferry, a professor in the chemistry and biochemistry department, the Graduate Civic Scholar is studying the effects of the toxin, Lyngbya wollei, on fish in Lake Wateree using a SPARC Award. The project is part of the new Center for Ocean and Human Health and Climate Change Interactions. Based at UofSC and led by Scott, this Center is funded by a $5.7 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and brings together more than 20 researchers from five institutions to assess the effects of illness and disease related to ocean and freshwater health and then use this information to develop forecasts that prevent human exposure to these stressors and other prevention strategies. She’s also using her HPEB background to conduct community engagement and health communication work with the Lake Wateree community, assessing residents’ perceptions and knowledge concerning harmful algal blooms and their impacts.

I love how public health is so intersectional and there are so many opportunities to work collaboratively between disciplines.

-Maggie Carson, environmental health sciences doctoral candidate

In addition to Carson’s research activities, she also serves as a graduate teaching assistant and holds multiple leadership positions. She is the student section chair for the South Carolina Public Health Association, the public health liaison for the Institute of Healthcare Improvement at South Carolina, a member of the Dean’s Student Advisory Council and a student representative on the Arnold School’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee. She also helped found and serves as vice president of the South Carolina American Water Works Association’s Carolina Student Chapter, which focuses on water issues related to public health, the environment and the economy. In addition, she has served as the South Carolina student representative for the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry Carolinas Chapter and received the 2019 President's Award from the South Carolina Public Health Association. 

After wrapping up her doctoral degree next year, Carson plans to continue her research, teaching and service activities. Ideally, she’d like to obtain an academic position, teaching and conducting research. She plans to begin that stage of her career with a postdoctoral fellowship, so she can further refine her research skills.

“Public health is a growing field with such a diverse array of opportunities and areas of study, that if you enjoy helping people I am sure you can find an area in public health to enjoy,” Carson advises other students considering public health for their careers. “I love how public health is so intersectional and there are so many opportunities to work collaboratively between disciplines, I feel like I am constantly learning and growing as a public health professional throughout my time at the Arnold School of Public Health.”