June 1, 2021 | Erin Bluvas, email@example.com
“I always gravitated towards science and health topics as an adolescent,” Aja Willis says. “From watching science-based television shows to taking health and environmental high school and college courses, I knew from early on that the sciences would be a part of my life.”
With so many career paths in the health field, Willis kept her eyes open as she studied biology at UofSC Upstate and gained research experience as an undergraduate student. It was when she began working as a lab analyst for the Institute for Environmental Health Laboratories and Consulting Group after her 2018 graduation that Willis found her calling.
“My passion for public health is deeper than wanting to just help people. This decision stems from me wanting to become a part of a solution to provide a better environment for people of a lower socioeconomic status due to me once being a component of that setting.
-Aja Willis, Master of Public Health in Epidemiology student
“My position gave me insight into the incredible scope of the public health field,” Willis says. “Before then, I never gave a second thought about foodborne illnesses and the importance of food hygiene.”
After reading more about the field on her own, Willis decided to pursue a Master of Public Health in Epidemiology. Her goal was to learn more about quantitative and qualitative research, and she attended prospective students’ day for the Arnold School’s Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics.
“As soon as I heard Dr. Anthony Alberg speak, I knew that UofSC is where I wanted to be,” Willis says of her first encounter with the department chair and cancer epidemiologist. “I could tell that the professors of the department genuinely cared about the success of their students upon interacting with them, and speaking with graduate program director Dr. Linda Hazlett afterwards is what ultimately made the decision concrete. I wanted to be at an institution where the faculty and staff exude characteristics like that.”
During her program, Willis also found a mentor in health services policy and management clinical assistant professor Kelli Kenison. “She is so caring and led me to deeply examine the characteristics of myself as a foundation of being a public health professional,” Willis says. “She taught me that being honest and fairness isn’t enough. There are many other qualities of oneself that transfers into the career, and for success it is imperative to strengthen each one of those qualities in my personal life.”
While continuing to work at the Institute for Environmental Health and taking graduate courses, Willis gained additional experience as a graduate assistant. During the first nine months of the pandemic, she assisted with Saliva Assay Free Expedited (SAFE) COVID-19 Testing on campus. Since January of this year, Willis has worked in the Department of Acute Disease Epidemiology at the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.
With interests in food safety/security and acute disease, Willis plans to pursue a career working for an epidemiologist with a state agency. She is particularly interested in serving a rural community like the one where she grew up in Hampton, South Carolina – an environment that shaped and impacted her childhood. Long term, she would like to work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, working to advance equity in access to healthy/hygienic food.
“My passion for public health is deeper than wanting to just help people,” Willis says. "This decision stems from me wanting to become a part of a solution to provide a better environment for people of a lower socioeconomic status due to me once being a component of that setting.”
For those still looking for their niche in public health, Willis has some words of encouragement.
“You are needed. Your interests are valid, and your relevant experiences are necessary for the betterment of our world,” she says. “The future is literally in your hands, and you have a responsibility to leave the world a better place after you leave it than before you arrived.”