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Grad student’s podcast tackles big issues in public health

Risk Factors got its start as a class project

Elizabeth Sherwin is the host of the Risk Factors podcast and an MPH student at UC Berkeley School of Public Health, specializing in epidemiology and biostatistics. Currently, she works as a graduate student researcher at the Adolescent Research Collaborative. Berkeley Public Health writer Dylan Svoboda sat down to talk with Sherwin about her journey to public health and how her podcast tackles the root causes of public health challenges.

How did you get into the field of public health?

I studied public health as an undergrad at Santa Clara University. So I’ve been interested in public health for a long time and really loved this field. After undergrad, I spent a year in Guatemala, working with a community health organization. That was a great experience in doing global health on the ground and getting to work on a variety of projects.

After that, I came back from Guatemala and worked for three years as a research coordinator in maternal fetal medicine at Stanford. It was there I realized I had a passion for maternal health.

In both of those roles, I got to do some data analysis and really enjoyed that too, but I was also kind of feeling like I needed more skills and training. So the combination of wanting more statistics and epidemiology training and also trying to take more classes in maternal health kind of drove me to do my Masters of Public Health at UC Berkeley.

Now I’m here studying public health, epidemiology, and biostatistics with a specialty area in terminal child and adolescent health.

When and why did you start Risk Factors?

During the spring semester of 2021, I took a social epidemiology class. For our final project, we had an option to kind of do whatever we wanted. We had the option of doing a podcast, a Ted Talk, a paper, or something similar. We just had to use some of the themes and lessons from the course. So I decided to do a podcast.

I was interested at first because I had never done a podcast before. I thought that would be kind of fun and different. I was intrigued by the idea of creating something for a slightly different audience, since a lot of the writing that we do at school is academic, geared toward an academic audience or publishing research papers. I’m usually not focused on people outside of that arena. And so I was also interested in it for that reason.

I decided to do a podcast episode and I interviewed my current supervisor, Dr. Lucía Magis-Weinberg, at the Adolescent Research Collaborative, which is part of the Institute for Human Development. We talked about adolescent health and I really enjoyed it.

From there, I just kept doing more episodes when I had the time. I realized how easy it is to just upload your audio to these programs, which automatically send it to Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and other podcast platforms for free. I had no idea how easy it was to make a podcast!

I have decided to keep it going for as long as I feel like doing it. So far, I know I don’t have a lot of listeners but I’ve been doing it just because I enjoy it. It’s fun to reach out to people that I know or have a connection to and interview them. They seem to have enjoyed it. And then I think it’s been good for me to practice my communication skills and things like that.

What are some of the topics you cover?

Broadly, I would say I’m open to any topic that’s remotely related to public health. I’ve interviewed several people who were explicitly doing public health work. But a lot of the episodes have been with people who aren’t exactly public health professionals. Part of my goal is to make connections with other fields adjacent to public health.

For example, I did an episode on education and equity. The person I interviewed leads an organization called Community Equity Collaborative, which works on tackling educational inequity from preschool to high school. She doesn’t have public health training but what she’s doing is so relevant to public health. Early childhood education and educational access throughout the lifespan are one of the best things we can do to improve people’s health.

In another example, I interviewed someone who has a master’s degree in urban and regional planning. She works with the child welfare system. So we talked a lot about the history of foster care, which obviously has implications for public health. I would say my emphasis is always on trying to talk about root causes and system change, getting at those bigger questions.

Is there an overall objective to your podcast?

I wouldn’t say that I have an overarching objective. I think my objective would be to just expose people to some new perspectives or ways of thinking about health and public health, especially if they are not studying public health. Sometimes I feel like I barely touch the surface on these topics because they’re very big topics. In a 45 minute conversation with someone, there’s only so much we can cover. On a more personal level, I’m doing it because I enjoy it. I enjoy talking to people and learning from them. Ultimately, I think it will help me think about what I want to do in the future after graduating. I’m also definitely improving my communication skills.

What has been your most impactful or favorite episode so far?

It’s hard to pick favorites. Everyone I’ve interviewed has been fantastic. But I think my favorite might be the one on the child welfare system. I had a couple of people reach out and say how much they enjoyed that episode. I just feel like the interviewee, Aubrey Blacker, was really thoughtful about the topic. She just did a lot of research and showed some really interesting information.

Aubrey made me think about the way we present and communicate data about foster children. If you’re always telling young foster kids that they’re more likely to experience these adverse outcomes, that’s a very negative narrative to put on someone. It helped me recognize that a negative narrative like that can be really problematic on an individual level, and how we could reframe or think about the way we present that information.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.