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Home » Discover Rackham » Student Spotlight: Katrina Ellis

Katrina never planned on having a career in public health. What seemed at the time to be relatively minor life choices – first to travel and immerse herself in new cultures and experiences and second to delve into research – led to what she hopes is a long and fruitful career.

As an undergraduate at Dillard University in New Orleans, Katrina participated in a global cultural exchange program that allowed her to develop relationships with college students around the world and took her to China and Chile. She recalls, “This was my first time traveling internationally. It was a great opportunity to learn about other countries and cultures from students who lived there and then be able to visit those places firsthand.” After college, those experiences – and a passion for community service – led Katrina to join the Peace Corps. Assigned to Fiji with the intention of working with community youth programs, her project fell through. She was placed in community public health instead. This change charted a course for a career in public health.

She says, “It was there that I came to understand the field of public health. I worked with nurses and doctors who went into various settings – settlements, villages, schools and workplaces – teaching about health and supporting community-level public health initiatives. This work piqued my interest in the role of families and communities in managing illness and supporting health. I began to reflect upon my own family’s experiences in a new way.” That led her to Michigan’s doorstep, where she completed a dual master’s degree program in Public Health and Social Work. She says, “I was struck by how much a serious and unexpected illness like cancer affects the whole family and how community and health system resources influence how families cope with a cancer diagnosis.”

As a master’s student, she completed clinical and community outreach internships through the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center. Also during her time as a master’s student, she says, “I tried my hand at research. I wanted to take advantage of all opportunities in front of me. One of my first research positions was with a professor who focused on improving African American men’s health and understanding factors that influenced their cancer-related preventative behaviors. That research experience really influenced my decision to pursue a Ph.D. to study cancer prevention and survivorship among minority populations. I was drawn to a career in intervention research and public health programs and initiatives that involved families.”

She took a year after her master’s degree to complete a fellowship through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focused on program evaluation in culturally diverse groups. Realizing that program evaluation is a big component of intervention research, she found this year to be very beneficial. She says, “One of my main evaluation projects involved a community-based program for families with young children. Again, the theme of families was woven into the professional opportunities I’ve been afforded.”

Her dissertation focuses on patients with advanced cancer and their family caregivers. A main focus of her work is to draw attention to the other chronic health issues they are managing at the time of the cancer diagnosis. She says, “I see this issue as a key factor because unfortunately, many individuals and families are managing multiple health problems. So when a cancer diagnosis occurs in these families, it’s not going to be the only health problem they face. Managing multiple conditions can be challenging and affect their quality of life and ability to cope with the stresses of illness.”

“Going forward, I want to focus specifically on health issues in minority populations, given the health disparities that continue to persist between racial and ethnic groups. I’ve received great training during my time as a Ph.D. student working with researchers in the Schools of Public Health and Nursing who conduct family-based research and as a trainee at the Center for Research on Ethnicity Culture and Health.”

Katrina’s husband is finishing his Ph.D. in the School of Education. Attending concerts, supporting local sports teams, and spending time at local parks are a few of their favorite activities. Currently, they are pursuing postdoctoral fellowship positions. After a postdoc, she’ll most likely pursue an academic position. She says, “My undergraduate degree is in education – I’ve always been drawn to teaching. During my time here, I taught an undergraduate class in public health and loved it. I see myself continuing to teach and conduct intervention research in the coming years.”

Of her Michigan journey, she says, “My Ph.D. experience has been challenging but very rewarding. I have had so much support. I’ve worked with many different faculty members and I am so impressed with faculty member willingness to spend time talking with me and learning about my interests. Michigan is very open to interdisciplinary collaboration.” She goes on to say, “My current advisor, Dr. Cleopatra Caldwell and my advisor during my master’s program, Dr. Linda Chatters, have invested a lot in me. The data I used for my dissertation came from a faculty member at the School of Nursing – Dr. Laurel Northouse. A simple e-mail led to a great mentor and research opportunities. I am very thankful for the support I’ve received.”

A Rackham Merit Fellow, Katrina says her experience with Rackham has been great. She’s gotten a significant amount of funding, from conference travel grants to summer writing awards to funding for specialized statistical courses not offered at Michigan. She says, “That doesn’t even count the workshops I’ve gone to and the professional and career mentoring I’ve received from faculty and staff at Rackham.”