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Discovering epidemiology and combating health inequities through a leap of faith
profile image of McKenzi Thompson

McKenzi Thompson found purpose and direction at Rollins School of Public Health. Now, she’s working to advance reproductive health and justice while also building community wherever she goes.

McKenzi Thompson was drawn to Rollins School of Public Health by a deep sense of purpose and direction. During her undergraduate junior year, Thompson experienced the loss of her grandmother and father while also navigating the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I relied on my faith to keep me anchored through all of these challenges,” Thompson says. “While I was praying, God told me, ‘Emory is your next step.’ I exclusively applied to Rollins and hoped for the best.”

Once she was here and more immersed in the school’s goals and values, she realized they aligned perfectly with her own — a match made in heaven.  

Discovering a passion for epidemiology

During an undergraduate immersion trip to Sonora, Mexico, in January 2020, Thompson witnessed health disparities firsthand and wanted to gain skills to help — a quest that eventually led her to Rollins. While waitlisted for the Rollins program (global health) she originally applied to, she received an offer from the epidemiology department.

Thompson’s undergraduate degrees in biochemistry and molecular biology, on the pre-med track, prepared her for the rigor her graduate program required.

“In addition to being a highly motivated student and researcher, McKenzi sets herself apart from other students with her passion,” says Stephanie Eick, Thompson’s advisor and an assistant professor of environmental health.

“In our first meeting, she expressed her interest in reducing health disparities in maternal and child health, and pursuing topics that align with these interests, and passion has been a theme of the work she has done during her MPH program.”

Thompson has leveraged her thesis to tackle such topics, examining any potential links between exposure to chemicals and gestational hypertension. Her additional experiences have strengthened that interest and equipped her with a bevy of epidemiological skills. Prior to Rollins, Thompson had little clinical experience, but working in hospitals and labs during the past two years confirmed that helping others in a clinical setting is what she’s meant to do.

During her program, Thompson has, among other things, worked as a data analyst for the environmental health department and examined pregnancy outcomes as a result of chemical exposure. She also served as a graduate research assistant on a mixed-method, NIH-funded study that introduced a postpartum comprehensive care plan given to those who have pre-eclampsia, gestational or chronic hypertension, or diabetes.

Building community wherever she goes

From day one, Thompson has been carving her own path and uplifting others while she does it.

As vice president of the Association of Black Public Health Students (ABPHS), she focused on enhancing the Rollins experience for her peers.

“I wanted to be involved in ABPHS because I’m a firm believer in creating community wherever I’m at,” Thompson says. “I knew that I wanted to create events to build community but also that were relevant to my interests.”

With that cross-section in mind, Thompson helped organize a Black sexual and maternal health event with the Emory Reproductive Health Association, held during 2022’s Black Maternal Health Week. The two-part event tackled both Black sexual health topics and Black maternal mortality and involved other community-based organizations, including Sister Song, ARC Southeast and Love ‘N’ Touch.

“It’s very near and dear to me that Black women are three times more likely to die during childbirth compared to white women,” she says.

Through ABPHS, Thompson also partnered with a student in the School of Medicine to create a mentorship program. The pre-med program matched Rollins pre-med students with Black Emory medical students. “Having mentorships and doing events where you’re building community is so important,” Thompson says. “We had a lot of collaboration throughout my time on the board.”

Thompson also joined the epidemiology department's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee, where she analyzed admission data, gauged insight on how supported epidemiology students felt and led other efforts to help the department engage with the community.

Explaining why DEI is critical, she says, “It helps create an inclusive learning environment and it’s important that this committee exists because when you’re combining individuals from diverse backgrounds, you’re allowing unique experiences and perspectives to enhance the classroom and overall experience.”

“It’s important that the students who are matriculating are reflective of the Atlanta and Georgia demographics because it’s important that we have epidemiologists that reflect the people we’re working with,” Thompson says. “Before this program, I didn’t know one Black epidemiologist. Now I know so many, and that’s really powerful and encouraging.”

Bettering the future

Thompson will take all of these skills forward into her next roles. While she’s planning to apply to medical school over the summer, she’ll also continue her work as a data scientist on a fertility study in partnership with the Morehouse School of Medicine’s Center for Maternal Health Equity.

Plus, she’ll be an MD Anderson Cancer Center Fellow examining ovarian cancer prevention research alongside an OB/GYN — invaluable experience for Thompson’s future goal of becoming an OB/GYN herself.

But really, she’s open to any reproductive justice opportunities, as well as enjoying a year away from school to soak up life and spend time with family and friends.

“For me, the biggest takeaway I’ve had throughout my master’s is how faithful my God is,” she reflects.

“To be able to have the support I’ve gained throughout this journey, I feel so lucky and fortunate to be in this position, to have endured all I’ve been through and be graduating soon.”

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