In this regular feature, we meet members of the faculty and learn what inspires their teaching and commitment to students at UMF, which was recognized by U.S. News and World Report for Best Undergraduate Teaching among Top Public Colleges in 2019.
In the November 2019 installment of Profiles in Pedagogy, we see and hear from Katie Callahan ’03, assistant professor of Community Health Education and a chronic disease epidemiologist.
Words: Katie Callahan / Photos: Marc Glass
Katie Callahan, assistant professor of community health education at UMF, guides students through the steps of producing a statistics-based report in her Principles of Epidemiology class.
You have been a Chronic Disease Epidemiologist for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control and you now teach Principles of Disease Prevention and Principles of Epidemiology among other courses at UMF. How are you able to draw on your experience as an epidemiologist in teaching epidemiology and disease prevention to future health educators?
As an epidemiologist, it has been a great opportunity to be able to teach the foundations of the discipline to students here at UMF. Much of what students are introduced to in the course is supported by research and projects that I have previously worked on. I believe that it adds relevance to connect what we do in the classroom to outbreaks, research, and programming that have happened or are happening in the field. The experiential learning that I’ve included in Principles of Epidemiology guides students in building their own cross-sectional analysis and takes them outside of the classroom to collect observational data for a week in the semester. As they learn about the different aspects of epidemiology, they also learn how to analyze their data and report their findings. Connecting health education and epidemiology is not always a clear line for students. Having worked in both fields has been an advantage for me in determining what introductory epidemiological skills and knowledge students will need to be successful as community health educators or in any area of health promotion they choose to pursue.
You have been a faculty member at a private college and worked in state government as a public health educator and researcher. What drew you to become a professor of community health education at your alma mater — in your own undergraduate major?
Finding myself working at UMF was unexpected! I had long-term career plans of teaching at the university level, but I hadn’t anticipated that the opportunity would present itself as early in my career as it did. I was working at the Maine CDC and also teaching at the graduate level when my current position became open. Having graduated from the University’s Community Health Education program, I knew it well, I knew that my experience could be beneficial and relevant for students, and I knew that if there were an ideal location for me personally to teach, it would be UMF; so I applied for the position. UMF is an excellent fit for me because I wanted to be able to focus on both teaching and research, and I wanted to be in an environment, both physical and professional, that inspired me. Being not only a graduate of UMF but also a local to the Wilton–Farmington area, it is very humbling for me to be able to give back to a university and a region that has given me so much throughout my life.
Are you still involved with public health initiatives or research outside your teaching at UMF?
I chose the field of public health and epidemiology because I wanted to work on improving the quality of life for others. It is important to me that I continue to work toward this. A long-time interest of mine has been tobacco exposure and how it is linked to child health outcomes. I recently finished research that explored a 10-year look at smoking in vehicle legislation and if it can be predictive of smoking behavior change. Also focused around tobacco, I work with others across the state who have an interest in usage trends, policy, and legislation. I also have an interest in HIV/AIDS and sexual health behaviors and outcomes. I am part of the Maine HIV/AIDS Advisory Board, which explores current HIV/AIDS programming and needs for the state. I am also working with a Community Health Education senior to explore current student sexual health beliefs and behaviors at UMF as part of his internship experience. There are also sub-committees, such as the Maternal and Child Health Section of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, that I sit on.
Your professional activities outside higher education include managing a statewide annual children’s health survey and working as a chronic disease epidemiologist reporting on child health data. Based on your research and professional experience, what are a few of the child health issues that you feel are most important for UMF students to understand and work to resolve?
Most of my experience with child health data is focused on the connection between health behaviors and health outcomes. The surveillance data that I oversaw in South Carolina provided the unique ability to look at parent health behaviors and outcomes and connect those to their children’s own behaviors and outcomes. From a larger perspective, I use the findings about behavior and outcome to guide students on how to influence change. Having the knowledge of the association between one’s behavior and their own health is important, but having the skills to influence long-term behavior change is what is needed to begin to resolve issues and help to make substantial changes in any person’s life.
What impresses you about Community Health Education majors at UMF?
Finding what motivates individuals to change their behavior, especially long-term, is challenging. To be effective and successful at this requires a high level of critical thinking and problem solving, and an ability to listen to and understand people. I’ve always been impressed with how much students learn and grow in this major from the lower-level classes when they begin learning the content to when they are creating their own health promotion activities near their senior year. Our students learn those critical problem-solving skills and they begin to learn how to ‘see’ people. I’m also impressed with how much our students care about people. They chose the Community Health Education major because, in some way — through education, coaching, physical/occupational therapy, research, or whatever avenue they choose for their career — they want to help others. I think that’s incredibly admirable.
What drew you to decide to become a Community Health Education major when you were a young college student at UMF? Were any of your professors back then factors in your decision to declare CHE as a major?
My path to community health was not straightforward or clearly defined when I was younger. Community Health Education is actually my second degree that I obtained at UMF. I first graduated with a Business Economics Degree in 2003 and worked in market research in Salt Lake City, Utah, and in Sales just north of Boston. In 2007, I found myself back at UMF working toward the courses required to go to pharmacy school. While taking courses, I had an assignment where I needed to find a person who was currently taking prescription medications, discuss with the person what each was for, and make some conclusions. I looked at my grandmother’s medications. She had been morbidly obese my entire life and she had Type 2 diabetes. After looking at her medications and what they were for, I came to the realization that I didn’t want to be in the business of managing disease; I wanted to be in the field of preventing it. Later that week, I changed my major to Community Health Education. I did have some excellent mentors in the Community Health program who helped me well into my career. Bud Martin was the person who solidified my interest in epidemiology while I was a student and Stephanie Swan was a helpful resource when applying to graduate programs. I have been fortunate to be able to come back and work with them both as colleagues here at UMF.
Are there any guiding professional principles or values that you intentionally try to instill in your students?
There are a few guiding principles that I try to include in my courses as students progress through the major, but the two most prominent are probably; show up and always be kind. There are quotes in history that speak to showing up and success or showing up and life. I agree with the overall message that you’ve got to show up for things to happen. I use this with examples of helping others, networking, community activities, professional development opportunities, even exam review sessions. I try to instill the importance of “always show up” because what happens from there doesn’t have to be perfect. The second principle of being kind may seem very fundamental, but it’s so incredibly important, especially when working in a field where you need to be compassionate and understanding of people.
If you were in a position to encourage a prospective student to consider coming to UMF, what would you say?
Much of the ability to thrive and succeed is dependent on the environment that we are surrounded by and the exposures within that environment. The UMF community fosters an environment that promotes learning and success through smaller class sizes and experience-based opportunities. Students grow here and they leave prepared for what they want next. I was once one of them!
After earning a bachelor’s in business economics from UMF in 2003 and a bachelor’s in community health education from UMF in 2009, Callahan received her master’s in public health at San Diego State University and her doctorate in public health from East Tennesee State University. Prior to joining the community health education faculty at UMF, she was a chronic disease epidemiologist for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Her research interests include tobacco exposure and how it is linked to child health outcomes, HIV care service utilization differences among U.S. and foreign-born populations in Maine, adolescent self-esteem and sexual health behaviors, and addressing stigma and resource gaps among marginalized populations.