Anna Williams, MPH

C O P H Alumna and U S F D A / N C T R Research Biologist, Anna Williams, M P H
What degree program(s) did you complete?

MPH/Health Behavior and Health Education (2008).

What attracted you to the field of public health?

As a child, I was always interested in public health. I’ve always wanted to do something to help improve the health of people. I chose to major in biology, because I knew, with a biology degree, I’d be able to find a career in the health care field. When my 44-year-old brother passed, I knew in my heart that I needed to go back to school to learn about healthy/unhealthy behaviors. I wanted to learn why individuals do the things they do, good and bad, and how those things ultimately impact an individual’s health. At the time, I was employed full-time as a Biologist at USFDA/NCTR (United States Food and Drug Administration/National Center for Toxicological Research in Jefferson, Ark.).

What is your current job title and place of employment?

I am still employed at USFDA/NCTR as a Research Biologist. However, since obtaining my MPH, I have changed divisions. In 2009, I moved from the Division of Microbiology to the Division of Personalized Nutrition and Medicine to work as a community liaison (still, holding the title of research biologist) in order to make use of what I learned in the MPH program. I served as the liaison between the researchers and community members we were working with at the time. I really enjoyed working with the residents in the communities of Marvell and Elaine, Arkansas! I was responsible for keeping them informed on the biomedical aspect of our research. I assisted in relaying the protocol, in laymen’s terms, to the community. I also assisted in the data collection of the various measurements taken of each participant. I helped in the analysis of the blood samples, once getting them back to the laboratory. I also trained summer interns in how to do these measurements, besides being responsible for supervising them during the length of their summer appointment with us. When my position ended in 2011, I moved to the Division of Systems Biology, Innovative Safety and Technologies Branch. I assist two principal investigators with their research in the development of new technologies to screen for pathogenic bacteria in different foods. We use flow cytometry as a tool to screen for E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, etc. in green leafy vegetables, peanut butter, milk, etc. We hope to be able to utilize this technology in the detection of prions and noroviruses as well.

How would you describe a typical work day?

A typical day in my position involves ensuring we have adequate supplies to complete our experiments for the day/week/month. This includes the ordering and cultivation of the various strains of bacteria we use to do our experiments. I am also responsible for growing each in the proper medium to allow for adequate growth and preparing needed solutions. Also, in a typical day, we may have visiting scientists or students visit our laboratory. I am responsible for assisting in the training of visiting scientists too.

What is your advice for students considering a similar career path?

If at all possible, get your education BEFORE starting a family. It’s much easier that way. You can focus better, only having yourself to deal with. However, if one already has a family, with God, hard work and determination one can still achieve the goal of obtaining a desired degree. Also, be sure to apply for every internship that might be of interest to you. Actually, that is how I got my current position. I was a junior in college and a professor informed me of the summer program at USFDA/NCTR. I applied and got the position. I started in 1991, as a biological aide. I am now a research biologist and have been with USFDA/NCTR ever since! Take advantage of the opportunities offered to you and apply for any internships offered. Internships have the possibility of turning into full-time permanent employment!

What experiences or learning gained at UAMS or elsewhere have you found most beneficial professionally or helped you qualify for what you do?

The classes I took at the UAMS COPH were all very helpful to my understanding about what health really is and how it’s affected by environment and social economic status, as well as other influences in an individual’s life. I especially benefited from the class entitled, Theories of Health Behavior and Health Education, taught by Dr. Jan Richter [now retired]. As a result of that class, I now have a better understanding of why individuals behave as they do. I am better able to relate to co-workers, colleagues, people in general thanks to her class! I also learned a lot from the classes entitled The Health Care System, Introduction to Public Health, and Social Determinants of Health. All of these classes were real eye-openers for me, regarding the health of the public and how it can be improved.

The summer pre-medical internship I participated in at Fisk University, as an undergraduate, helped to qualify me for my current position as a researcher at USFDA/NCTR. During this summer appointment, I learned how to perform chemical calculations, as well as learned about cellular biology (molecular biology) and how to interact with students from various backgrounds. The internship only lasted a month, but it was very educational and helpful to my future.

What do you find most rewarding about your work in public health?

I really enjoy my work. I like knowing that my work is contributing to the overall health and well-being of the public. I mean, no matter which division I am in (or have worked in), the overarching goal of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is to promote and protect the health of the public. The work I am presently involved in does just that. By screening various foods for pathogenic bacteria, we may be able to prevent illness attributed to the ingestion of these foodborne pathogens. This potentially can result in the saving of lives, as well as costs to the consumer and food manufacturer. In summary, our research, when implemented, will be a definite benefit to the health of the general public. Being involved in such research makes me feel I am doing something extremely useful and important to public health.