Beyond BMSc - interviewing Columbia's Masters of Public Health


Hey everyone! Welcome back to Beyond BMSC. Today, we'll be hearing from Melissa, a student at the University of Columbia's Masters program in Public Health. So let's skip the chitchat and hear from Melissa herself!


To hear the audio version of the following conversation, please visit us on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/55QxpEniXCjF5OHLa2pEt2


Columbia MPH


Interviewer: Grace Huang

Interviewee: Melissa Ying


Grace: Hello and welcome to Beyond BMSc where we interview past medical science students who have pursued various graduate programs to answer your questions for post-BMSc pathways. My name is Grace and today we’re joined by Melissa. So hi Melissa, how are you doing today?


Melissa: I’m good, how are you?


Grace: I’m good as well. So I guess we’ll start off. I'll ask you your first question. How about you tell me a little bit about yourself, including the module during your time in the medical sciences program, what post-graduate program you pursued after, and if there’s anything else I guess like a fun fact about yourself - like maybe a club or a hobby that you were on.


Melissa: Sure, I’m a BMSc grad. I did an honours specialization in medical cell biology when I was there. I was really interested in cell biology in second year and decided to pursue it. During my time at Western, I became really interested in integrated care and public health more broadly. So I ended up pursuing a Masters of Public Health after graduation, specializing in health policy and management. And a fun fact about me, um, you mentioned clubs - I did Western Voice when I was at Western. In terms of hobbies, I’ve been doing a lot of cooking these days, especially this past year.


Grace: Yeah, I definitely relate - trying out new recipes is a good way to keep busy during the pandemic. So yeah, that’s really interesting, you mentioned the MPH program that you did. Do you want to tell me a little more about that? What was the structure of it? What are some things you liked about it?


Melissa: Sure, yeah, so I did my Masters of Public Health at Columbia in New York. It’s a 2-year program, pretty fast, definitely faster than a BMSc program, and for those who don't know much about public health, it’s quite an interdisciplinary field. I think I went in with a policy focus, but came out with a lot more questions than answers. In terms of structure, the first semester, um, because of the way public health is, people can come from all sorts of backgrounds, the first semester is really public health 101 - just like an intensive semester with I think 18 courses on the foundations of public health, the history of it, kind of, social determinants of health, all the way to policymaking and how it’s done today. So that’s the first semester, and beyond that, students break off into their different concentrations and their courses reflect that. I mentioned that I specialized in health policy and management - that was my department. I also pursued a health policy analysis certificate. So for semesters 2, 3, and 4, there was a core set of courses that I had to take to achieve that certificate and then kind of some flexible room for electives.


Grace: Yeah, that’s really good to hear! And I guess you mentioned that the first semester was quite busy. How would you say the workload was in your program as compared to your time in the medical sciences program?


Melissa: Yeah, I mean I think, I mean definitely less but, with the caveat that - less with more opportunities to take on things outside of class. I think as a master's program, and kind of a more professional-driven program, there were a lot of opportunities to take on internships outside of class, and a lot of, you know, extracurricular things going on on-campus that were meant to enhance our experience academically. So in terms of strictly academic workload, I’d say, yes, less, but in terms of opportunities outside of class, way more!


Grace: Yeah, so that’s good to hear. I guess you get more of a taste of the real world. So I guess my next question for you, what was it specifically about the program, so the Masters of Public Health program, that caused you to choose it, and I guess more specifically, why Columbia?


Melissa: So I guess I’ll start kind of, I might back up a little bit from your question. I think the reason why I got really interested in public health is based on experiences at Western, academically, and also personally, I saw a lot of gaps in the healthcare system when it came to care formation, particularly supporting those with complex needs to help navigate across the system. I also felt there was room for improvement in terms of preventative care. So taking that lens, I wanted to do public health to learn more about that, to be able to impact more at a system level. So when I was looking at programs, I think I wanted a more international one on health systems. I love Canada, and I’m still here, and I love our healthcare system, but I think there’s a lot that we can learn in other countries, in terms of innovation and the different types of integrated care models that they’re implementing that I wanted to learn more about. So I think that kind of drove me to look outside of Canada. To your point about why Columbia specifically, I think you know, the program itself stood out, because I didn’t have a public health background. That first semester - the “core” they call it, would give me the foundation and then the following semesters would build on it, so that was definitely a deciding factor. But I think the bigger reason I wanted to go there is because it’s kind of in New York City, obviously a great place to be, but also a huge hub for healthcare. They’ve got some world-class hospitals and providers there, and in many ways a center for innovation and healthcare in the States. So I wanted to be there for that reason - to learn externally and from the professors that are drawn there. And also, you know, the school attracts students from across the globe, so I had the opportunity to learn from my peers as well.


Grace: Yeah, that’s really good to hear! And I guess, kind of, maybe a bit more on the opposite side, is there anything you wish you did know about before choosing your program? Maybe some like things you learned throughout the process that you wish you knew about before applying?


Melissa: Yeah. Good question. The first thing that came to mind was how expensive New York City is. But, um, I think, uh, I think I kind of came across public health by happenstance. As I mentioned, I became really interested in integrated care without actually knowing what that was and it led me to public health. I think what I’d wished I had known going in - not necessarily a bad thing, but that I didn’t know it earlier, but just that public health is so multidimensional, and like, um, I guess I went in with one idea of what this degree would do for me, but I think there are so many different avenues that you can take with your public health degree. Because when you think about public health, it’s anything that touches health, so I think I definitely did explore while I was there, but maybe I wish that I had known the extent of how broad it was.


Grace: Yeah that makes a lot of sense! Moving forward, following up with how broad it is now, you are a senior consultant, is that correct?


Melissa: Mhm.


Grace: So I guess, now in your role as a senior consultant, what does your day-to-day look like? And what are some highlights you have from your job?


Melissa: Yeah, um, I’m a senior consultant at KPMG currently. I've only been here for about 8 months. I was actually at another consulting firm in New York. So similar job, different firm. I think a day in the life of a consultant definitely varies day by day, but I’d say, the majority of my role is supporting client engagement, so at KPMG, I sit with them in their healthcare solutions practice. We kind of work with different stakeholders across the healthcare system to solve problems - some are strategic, some are operational problems, anything from operational excellence all the way up to strategic planning. We also have a dedicated digital health team, so there’s some of that work within our practice. Um, it’s been great! I think in terms of highlights, it’s just the impact and the types of projects that I get to work on. Particularly now, in my current role, KPMG is quite a large firm, so I get to work on some pretty high profile and high impact projects, um, so that’s definitely been a highlight - just being able to learn I guess. People talk about consulting a lot as to how, you know, about how you can continuously learn in it, obviously I have a public health and healthcare background and I bring that to my job, but in many ways, it’s an opportunity to just meet with so many different people across different organizations and learn about their role and help provide situations for them. So yeah, that’s probably been the biggest highlight.


Grace: Yeah that’s really good to hear, And I guess I’m just curious, like did you see yourself being where you are now, back when you were in the medical sciences program at Western?


Melissa: No, I definitely did not - even going into grad school, I don’t think I saw myself in consulting, and I’ll explain I guess. In undergrad, I was kind of torn between staying in the clinical world, but then also being drawn to kind of a more management systems level role, so I think in that regard, I wasn’t really sure in undergrad. And in grad school even, I think I went in, kind of, frustrated, and I wanted to change the world, and I thought I was going to be in policy or something like that. But the program changed my mind, and I think it also highlighted how much I didn’t know and I ended up coming across consulting in grad school and became very intrigued by it because of the opportunity to just get so much exposure and that exponential learning curve in the industry - I wanted in on it. I ended up doing an internship in grad school that was consulting-based, and I really liked it, so - all that to say, no I didn't expect to be here.


Grace: Yeah, and I guess even though you didn’t expect to be in consulting, are there any, I guess soft skills or hard skills, or anything from your time in the med sci program that you feel like has been useful, both in your time in graduate school, and I guess now in your job?


Melissas: Yeah, I think, you know, while I’m not pulling out cell bio pathways in my day-to-day, I think a lot of that scientific acknowledgment is definitely a good basis, you know particularly with some of our life science clients, like that’s helpful to know just the basics. But I think in terms of soft… you said soft skills, but I don’t know if this is considered soft or hard, it’s just the research skills that you learn from being in BMSc are really critical. I think that rigour isn’t always applicable or used, but being able to take that spectral thought - of like taking a hypothesis, doing rigorous research and understanding a problem, then coming to a conclusion, that’s definitely something I’ve taken with me.


Grace: Yeah that’s awesome to hear as well. As a final question, do you have final words or pieces of advice to say to any of the BMSc students listening who might be interested in pursuing a Masters in Public Health or working in consulting in the future, but they may be confused or uncertain right now?


Melissa: Yeah, I think, it’s okay to be confused and uncertain. I think - I hope that it comes across, I wasn’t sure of my path when I was at Western. But I’d say one piece of advice is just to, if you’re interested, you know, seek out opportunities, don’t be afraid to say no. Like talk to as many people as you can. It’s a great way to understand if it’s the right path for you, if you like it, if you don't like it, just being open to opportunities that come your way.


Grace: Yeah, thank you so much! So once again, thank you Melissa for taking time out of your busy day to tell our listeners some important information. And with that, this was BMSA’s podcast for the Masters of Public Health program, speaking with Melissa. Check back on our website and social media platforms for episodes for other programs with new guests each week. Thank you for listening and we hope this has been helpful.



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