Himmelfarb Headlines - February / March 2021

Faculty Profile - Interview with Karen McDonnell, Vice-Chair, Department of Prevention and Community Health

Faculty ProfileTell us a little bit about yourself, your current position, and why you decided to pursue a career in your field.
Hi, my name is Karen McDonnell and I am the Vice-Chair in the Department of Prevention and Community Health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health. How did I decide to pursue a career in public health… in one word, serendipity. I actually fell into Public Health. I took a gap year after my undergrad (gap year sounds better than took a year off), much to my parent’s chagrin, and I took classes in community and public health at the university where I was working and WOW… I never knew you could do the things I liked to do as a career. This year was life changing and I applied to doctoral programs in public health and fell in love with everything the field had to offer. I grabbed every opportunity that came my way to be involved in the community and I found that I could not get enough. My family always taught me to make sure you choose a field that makes you want to get up in the morning. For me it's public health. I get to work with great people who cultivate that passion and you can be sure that every day is sure to bring a new adventure.

How did you become interested in your field?
Going into public health means never being bored! Just look at what is going on around us today. We are in the midst of multiple pandemics and the tools that I developed in my graduate training that I’m now teaching to the public health students, these are the skills that we desperately need today.

What brought you to GW?
Balance and wanting to make a difference. GW provides the best mixture of teaching, service, and research and values community service. GW’s location provides the ability to see public health in action.

What has been your most memorable moment and biggest professional challenge?
I’ve had two very memorable moments and at the same time my biggest professional challenges just this past year. The first is working with the federal government to draft and pass the STOP FGM Act of 2020. FGM/C (Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting) is a human rights violation that over 200 million women and girls have experienced worldwide. Our project designed a virtual evidence based living toolkit (www.fgmtoolkit.gwu.edu) to inform, educate, and support survivors of FGM/C, health care providers, and community members about FGM/C. We built this website in collaboration with survivors, health care providers, and FGM/C experts and their voices and perspectives can be seen and heard throughout the toolkit. Imagine our dismay when medical providers who were found to have performed FGM/C on young girls in Michigan were let go because of loopholes in the existing law. I worked with our partners in the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee and we designed a bipartisan, bicameral bill that was introduced by Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee and was unanimously approved in the House and the Senate and was just signed into law on January 5th, 2020.

Could you share about your work with the Campus COVID Support Team? (if not already addressed above)
The Campus COVID Support Team is the second memorable moment and biggest professional challenge this year. When COVID was declared a pandemic and we were hearing a call from our partners at the local health department for assistance, no time was wasted in volunteering to help organize our GW volunteer task force to work with our local health departments. I led the efforts in a local health department and the lessons learned from these early days in the Spring and Summer of 2020 helped immensely in working with my fellow public health visionaries Amita Vyas, Amanda Castel, Cindy Lu, and Dean Lynn Goldman to set up the GW public health efforts to bring GW safely back to campus. The CCST has been a life changing experience and it is because of our teamwork and communication that we are able to create and implement a COVID response team that sustains the campus reentry. Our campus continues to have a less than 2% positivity rate and we are able to contact every person who tests positive within minutes of receiving their results and ensure their health and well-being concerns are addressed.

What library resources or services have you found to be the most useful?
In our virtual environment, the services that are offered by the library are invaluable. Having the best journals available online along with the support you provide the students and faculty to become informed consumers of information; support that is so necessary in our time of needing to be critical purveyors of all of the information that is readily available to all of us.

Whom do you admire?
I greatly admire my mom and dad. Every day they have shown me the power of education. My mom is the first in her family to graduate from high school and my dad worked multiple jobs to be the first in his family to graduate from college. My dad was a teacher for over 30 years and now my sister and I serve as teachers.

How do you spend your free time? (or What do you do to relax?)
This past year, with the support of amazing friends, I stepped outside my comfort zone and trained for and ran my first marathon. Safely training together outdoors has helped me in keeping centered during these stressful pandemic times.

What advice would you give to a new faculty member just starting at GW?
Reach out and get involved. GW is a place that needs your voice and your input. It’s a place where we are not stuck in the past and we are willing to hold the difficult conversations needed to create real equitable change. I could not have survived without the support I have gotten from so many people who are willing to help... make yourself vulnerable and reach out and ask for the support you want to receive.


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