Alumni Profile: Susan C. Doll, SD '02
Once a month, the Office for Alumni Affairs highlights the work and accomplishments of an HSPH alumna/us in our Alumni Profiles series. We ask alumni to speak to how their HSPH experience influenced their career path and their work in public health, as well as to share any advice they have for current students.
What motivated you to pursue a public health education at the Harvard School of Public Health?
Assistant Professor, Building Science/Renewable Energy
Department of Technology & Environmental Design
Appalachian State University, Boone, NC
Prior to pursuing my degree at HSPH I was working at the Boeing Company as a system integration engineer for the International Space Station. My area of specialization was the Environmental Control and Life Support System that provides air, water, and food for the astronauts and also controls the thermal and pressure environment of the spacecraft. The job required frequent interactions with aerospace doctors and toxicologists and it quickly became apparent that engineers and health professionals do not speak the same language. So I decided to return to school at the age of 41 to learn a new discipline that would allow me to 'translate' between engineering and human health requirements. My doctoral research on "limiting conditions for fungal growth in the built environment" was a study on how engineering decisions and design can impact health of occupants in engineered environments.
How has HSPH impacted your career path?
Getting my degree in environmental health opened the door to an interdisciplinary career path that bridges the gap between applied engineering and medicine, to not only address better ways to engineer systems so that they have fewer adverse impacts on humans and the environment, but also to engineer systems that can help reduce or prevent conditions that can lead to adverse health effects.
What have you been doing since leaving HSPH?
My journey since leaving HSPH has taken multiple twists and turns: first to an environmental consulting company where my primary role was building diagnostics related to moisture and mold conditions; a desire to return to my energy roots and find an entry point for development work led to a 2-year post-doc appointment as an Earth Institute Fellow at Columbia University and my research on household energy in rural Rwanda, specifically cook-stove fuel efficiency and indoor air quality. Through contacts in Rwanda, I was hired as a UNDP consultant to work as the interim infrastructure coordinator for the Millennium Villages Project, providing energy/water/
transportation/communication services for clinics, schools, community and business development, and agriculture needs; and finally upon returning to the States, finding an ideal academic position with a dual appointment in Building Science and Renewable Energy, in the Department of Technology and Environmental Design at Appalachian State University.
The focus of my domestic research is the interrelationship between energy efficiency in residential housing, indoor environment quality, and occupant behavior for which I have recently received a U.S. Housing and Urban Development Healthy Homes Technical Studies grant to characterize potential impact of weatherization measures on IEQ. My international research interest is appropriate technology applications for clean water and energy from waste, so far with a small EPA P3 grant to study solar water pasteurization.
What advice would you give to a current student with similar career interests?
For students who wish to pursue interdisciplinary work, use all of your life experiences to add to a 'toolbox' of skills and be patient to build on training and experiences that will span the fields of interest. Although sometimes more difficult to explain to others, working at the interface of different disciplines can be extremely rewarding, in my experience connecting discoveries of adverse effects in one field, with solutions to help mitigate them in the other. The issues of poor indoor air and water quality in developing countries are classic examples of no one discipline 'owning' the investigation of both the cause (environmental health) and the solution (engineering). Medicine alone can treat the illness but not correct the cause and engineering alone cannot identify the health problem that needs to be remedied. Whatever your specific interest, follow your passion, however circuitous the route may sometimes seem.