After graduating from MSU with her bachelor’s degree in microbiology, Lillian Jensen took some time away from starting her career to serve as a medical caregiver for her ailing grandmother. During this time she began to experience flaws in the health care system firsthand. 

“I witnessed flaws in the health care system which directly lowered her quality of life. She had many medical specialists, but my grandmother experienced very little continuity of care. I was frustrated by the sense that I could see her whole medical picture better than her doctors could,” she said.

Her grandmother passed away early in the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused Jensen to reexamine her life and career goals. She also developed a strong reverence for the work of Dr. Anthony Fauci and public health professionals who worked relentlessly throughout the pandemic.

“COVID reinvigorated my own special interest in infectious disease and epidemiology, which led me to consider a career in public health. The more I learned about the field, the more I felt a sense of belonging.”

 Finding Inspiration and Purpose as a Spartan

Jensen chose MSU’s Master of Public Health program for various reasons. She was glad to find an MPH program that was flexible and entirely online. The generalist nature of the program drew her in and she knew it would be beneficial to explore the multiples areas of public health. It also didn’t hurt that she’d return to her alma mater. “I feel very much at home and at ease within the Spartan community, which made going back to school after seven years a more comfortable experience,” she said.

One of the most significant experiences during her time in the program was taking Dr. Renee Canady’s course on health equity. “I felt moved when I gained a full understanding of health equity in her course. I will definitely carry that understanding with me moving forward,” she said of Dr. Canady’s teaching methods.

Learning about the true impact of the social determinants of health and institutional issues surrounding it made Jensen not only think about the health of people in marginalized communities, but also think about her own health. Living with autism, experiencing childhood trauma, and struggling with addiction in the past often caused Jensen to blame herself for the resulting negative medical and social consequences. 

“It completely changed how I thought about my traumatic history, leading me to approach myself and my health with compassion instead of criticism,” she said. “I now contextualize other marginalized communities' health outcomes in much the same way.”

New Skills and Opportunities

An accomplishment she’s proud of so far in her MPH journey is presenting at the 2022 APHA Annual Meeting. Her final project for her Applied Epidemiologic Methods course allowed Jensen to hone her epidemiological data analysis skills and learn new methods to conduct data-driven research. She used those skills to conduct a study linking climate change to increasing Lyme incidence in Michigan.

“I used 20 years of county data to create a predictive model to predict Lyme incidence based on an increase in rain, temperature, extreme heat days and flood events. I found that the best predictor in Michigan was rainfall - so when rain increases, Lyme also increases,” she said about her research findings.

Her professor of the course, Dr. Min Tao, encouraged her to submit an abstract of her findings to APHA, which led to Jensen receiving a scholarship to travel to the conference in Boston to present her work. She figured the best way to stand out among the presenters was to create an eye-catching poster.

“As soon as I put it up, there was a crowd behind me looking at it. As I started talking to people, it would begin as a casual conversation about the poster design and then it led into talking about the research,” Jensen said. “It made the experience less scary than I thought it would be. It all felt like having a normal conversation.”

Looking Ahead

As she continues in the program, Jensen is grateful for the support of the MPH team. “What you gain from the experience is more important than your grades or what school you attended. The faculty at MSU is eager and ready to help you reach your goals in public health,” she said.

Jensen doesn’t have a set plan for a career when she graduates. Still, she’s dedicated to using her public health knowledge to help improve the quality of life of people in marginalized communities.

“I am open to whichever opportunities come my way to further develop my skills in epidemiology and bring me one step further towards the fight for health equity,” she said. “I am so grateful to have found my place in public health.”

Lillian Jensen is currently enrolled in the Master of Public Health program. In November 2022, she presented a poster titled, “Lyme disease: A consequence of climate change?” at the American Public Health Association annual meeting.

December 20, 2022