Careers in Environmental Health

As a public health fellow at the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) in Washington, D.C., Elise Tolbert works to address challenging environmental health issues facing the public.

As a public health fellow at the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) in Washington, D.C., Elise Tolbert works to address challenging environmental health issues facing the public.  In the Office of Air and Radiation, a department that ensures the nation’s air is safe and healthy to breathe, Elise focuses on programs which improve indoor air quality. She says, “One of the projects that I have a particular focus on relates to examining the impact of extreme indoor heat on vulnerable populations.”

Do you:

  • Have a passion for the environment?
  • Have an interest on how environmental issues affect public health?
  • Want to know how to work in a field that enables you to make a positive difference in the world?

Elise first developed an interest in Environmental Public Health after attending the Annual Minority Health Professions Symposium (AMHPS) during her senior year of high school. She says, “At the conference, I attended a session in which the speaker shared a story about a toxic chemical release which resulted in high cancer rates in a low-income, mostly black community in Louisiana.” Elise learned that the lack of resources left the vulnerable community with few options for help. “It was at this very moment that I realized my unique and distinctive purpose,” Elise says. Citing her passion for service to her community as “an innate part of my composition,” her desire to be a voice for underrepresented communities enduring environmental injustices was born. “I realized that the field of environmental justice provided an avenue for me to improve lives by protecting our environment.”

Once Elise discovered her purpose, she chose to attend Tuskegee University, where she received a B.S. in Environmental Science. She says, “As a high school student I had a hard time choosing a college. I really liked Tuskegee University and knew the academics were great. I ultimately chose to attend Tuskegee University because of the excellent academic programs, the great campus life, the potential job opportunities after graduation, because it was a Historically Black College, and because I knew that staying in my hometown would allow me to use my existing connections to provide some benefit to the Tuskegee community.” Elise then went on to receive her Masters of Public Health (MPH) in Environmental Health from the University of Michigan.

Elise’s passion for her job is apparent. “I love that my work can have a real and positive impact of a large number on lives,” she says. “If research is done to provide evidence of a problem and diverse partners work together to develop solutions, a real impact can be made.” Elise explains, “The office that I work in currently addresses issues where there is great opportunity to improve health outcomes. For example, many reports and studies indicate that low- income, minority, tribal and indigenous communities may be disproportionately impacted by indoor asthma triggers, secondhand smoke, mold, radon, and other indoor pollutants. To address these impacts, my office provides guidance and programs to build community capacity and improve indoor air quality in buildings where people live, learn and work.”

Elise also addressed a common misconception about the field of environmental sciences. “You may say, I’m not a tree hugger if that is your perception of environmental science, but there are so many sub-areas of environmental science that can capture your interest, like areas related to agriculture, business, biotechnology, policy making, natural resource preservation, toxicology, computer modeling, public health, or even national security. There are just so many options. My best advice is to explore the options and pursue what grabs your attention the most!”

Tuskegee University’s Environmental Health Option is an interdisciplinary option providing students with knowledge of how the environment influences human health and disease, and how to identify and address these risk factors.  Students are prepared for challenging careers such as toxicologists, environmental health specialists, public health specialists, environmental scientists, and health policy analysts.

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