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Pandemic proved to be a revelatory time for PhD student

May 06, 2024
by Fran Fried

Shannon Whittaker, PhD ’24 (Social and Behavioral Sciences, Public Health)

If you think writing a dissertation is hard, try doing it during a pandemic.

Shannon Whittaker, who is graduating from the Yale School of Public Health this spring with a PhD in social and behavioral sciences and public health, started her dissertation while COVID-19 had shut down most of the world. She calls it the most revelatory point of her time at YSPH. It was as much a self-revelation as a scholarly one.

“I learned to rely on and trust myself and my instincts, which fostered a sense of self-reliance,” she said.

“I also learned how to compartmentalize research and my personal life,” she added. “Instead of working around the clock, since I was working from home, I treated my PhD like a 9-to-5 job – sometimes a 9-to-2, even – which allowed me to take care of myself mentally while also increasing productivity. Even as the world returns to ‘normal,’ I’ve retained this change to achieve work-life balance.”

Whittaker earned her MPH from Brown University in 2015 after receiving her BA in public health there the previous year. She came to YSPH in 2018, interested in researching the intersection of race, health, and history, and how social, structural, and political processes impact the health of marginalized communities, especially Black communities.

YSPH, she said, has profoundly shaped her development as a scholar. During her time here, she has earned two competitive grants: the National Institutes of Health’s Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award (a/k/a the F31), and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Research Scholars Fellowship. She has also collaborated with researchers from various disciplines on three first-authored published manuscripts.

In addition, Whittaker helps other students acclimate to YSPH as a diversity fellow with the Office of Student Development and Diversity. This is where she said her most significant contribution to YSPH took place: helping create a space for underrepresented students and advocating for them.

“It was here that I learned what type of scholar I wanted to be,” she said. “I came to understand that while the path to impactful science often involves challenges, the privilege of contributing to knowledge production is one I deeply appreciate.”

Whittaker said that every professor she’s had at YSPH has helped shape her, Three in particular stand out. Danya Keene, associate professor of social and behavioral sciences, was Whittaker’s advisor and guided her through the intricacies of research. Trace Kershaw, SBS department chair and Susan Dwight Bliss Professor of Public Health (Social and Behavioral Sciences), “consistently offered unwavering support” in her six years here. Carolyn Roberts, assistant professor of history of medicine and science of medicine, and of African American studies, was a valued mentor. “Her guidance emphasized the importance of exploring beyond the boundaries of my discipline,” Whittaker said.

Whittaker is exploring all the options available to her after graduation, but that journey will begin with a postdoctoral fellowship at the Center for Innovation in Social Science at Boston University. She said she will miss having as much access to “my YSPH family,” but that she’s looking forward to experiencing life “beyond the PhD bubble.”

Whittaker leaves YSPH with one important piece of advice for the students following her: “Resist being molded.”

“Academia takes a one-size-fits all approach, which does not always work because we all exist within our own context,” she said. “Who do you want to be? What kind of research do you want to do? I think before starting a program you should ask yourself those questions and make sure to check in with yourself as often as possible to stay grounded and remain true to who you are. Also, surround yourself with people who will always bring you back to you.”

Submitted by Sabrina Lacerda Naia dos Santos on May 06, 2024