Christine Hradek

Describe your career path since graduating from the UI College of Public Health.
During my last semester at the College of Public Health, I accepted a job with the Iowa Nutrition Network at the Iowa Department of Public Health. The Network provides nutrition education and social marketing initiatives for Iowans with low income. A primary component of their work is nutrition education in elementary schools across the state.  My background as a school teacher in addition to my MPH prepared me well for such a position. I started the job in March of 2009 and began splitting time between Des Moines and Iowa City until my graduation in May.

In July 2013, I began my current job at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, where I coordinate nutrition and health programs for families experiencing poverty. We engage families in direct education to build knowledge of healthy nutrition as well as cooking and food budget management skills. We also carry out projects designed to make healthy eating easier for families experiencing poverty through population and system level interventions.

How did working with the PRC as a student help prepare or inform you for your current job?
I learned some valuable lessons and skills during my time at the PRC, including:

  • Engaging communities in public health initiatives is challenging, but it is the best way to determine acceptability and ensure sustainability. I have to practice this mantra every day. Sometimes you’re tempted to just make decisions in a vacuum and expect others to comply, but rarely is that a recipe for a strong public health program. Instead, honor that people have the right to make decisions for themselves and engage them in the process to find an initiative that provides needed and desirable support to people as they pursue changes to improve their community.
  • Public health work is messy and that’s OK. Public health initiatives rarely fit in neat little boxes and they change over time. Our job is to roll with those changes and continue to steer the project toward the ultimate goal.
  • In public health work, we as professionals are rarely the target audience. I learned at the PRC that I could not speak for the audience and it was perilous to try. Instead, I needed to actively seek feedback and input from those who I aim to reach. That is the only way to find messages and interventions that resonate, persuade, and support people effectively.

What’s the most important thing you took away from your time working with the PRC?
I think the most important thing I took from my time at the PRC is confidence that I could “do it.” I was nervous when I began my work at the Iowa Department of Public Health and there was a great deal I didn’t know, but I did not feel completely green. I felt like I had experience to fall back on and I had resources to pull from if I needed to. Through my assistantships with Dr. Nothwehr and Dr. Laroche at the PRC, I had worked with communities, assisted in program implementation, and carried out evaluations. Those experiences gave me just enough confidence to move ahead with some assurance that I could handle what came at me.

What are one or two of the most satisfying aspects of your work in public health?
I find work in food access to be incredibly satisfying. Nutrition education has been around in the United States for years, and in some cases it is very successful. However, in order for someone to make healthy choices based on education or persuasion, they must first have the option to make such a choice. It has to be possible for them. Successful nutrition education hinges on access to healthy food. For many Iowans, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein is out of reach. For some, such a diet is a financial impossibility. Our recent work to bring more fruits and vegetables into food pantries feels like we’re laying the foundation to make it more possible for our clients to carry out the dietary guidance we provide.

Secondly, the audience I serve is a huge inspiration to me. Most of our clients are young mothers raising children amid very challenging and stressful circumstances. The fact that our work can make one part of that a little easier gives me a great sense of satisfaction and pushes me to continuously evolve our programs to be what the clients need.

What do you think current students should know about the value of working with faculty and research projects like those affiliated with the PRC?
An assistantship is obviously a great source of income while you’re a student, but the actual payoff will be realized after you graduate. The confidence of knowing that you have experience in at least some areas of public health programming upon graduation is priceless. Starting out in the “real world” is scary and intimidating. Experiencing some of the challenges of public health work with the safety net of a cooperating professor makes tackling them on your own less intimidating.

What would you tell students about the value of working on community-based research or rural health?
I believe that community engagement is a critical component of most successful public health programs. Engaging communities in productive assessments and planning processes is what modern community public health is all about.