When Sophie Ideker graduated from Concordia Shanghai in 2017, she was not yet aware of how much her time in AL Epidemiology, an elective course she took in high school, would influence her future career path.
Five years later, she is more than excited to be pursuing her master’s degree at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York City, joined by two other Concordia graduates from 2017 and 2016 (Vivian Tsao & Emily Lu).
Sophie’s postgraduate studies will focus on Infectious Disease Epidemiology, permitting her to further her ambition to educate people about health and wellness, especially those in underserved communities. As evident through the Covid-19 pandemic, the world has seen an increasing demand for public health professionals.
Job market demands aside, Sophie’s inspiration for studying epidemiology dates back to 2016, when she took the first Applied Learning (AL) Epidemiology class at Concordia Shanghai led by Mr. Todd Gordon and Ms. Kathleen Mahoney. After high school, she attended Indiana University (IU) where she developed this interest into a passion and even a calling.
“As a teacher, seeing my former students continue further studies in fields related to my courses is always satisfying,” says Mr. Gordon, who is very happy that an elective course was instrumental in shaping the future for these students. “The path these students have chosen reflects the values we hold at Concordia as they will be working to make a positive change in the world,” he adds.
In a recent chat, we learned more about Sophie’s journey as she pursues a career in epidemiology.
Connections with Concordia Shanghai
How did Concordia’s Epidemiology class inspire you to Pursue this advanced degree?
I was in the first epidemiology class at Concordia. Because it was a new class, I didn’t know what to expect but I had a lot of fun learning about diseases and public health. Our class studied topics such as the history of epidemiology, the biology of diseases and immunity, communicable vs non-communicable diseases, and more, and we were even visited by the highly regarded, international epidemiologist, Dr. Mosoka Fallah, who shared insights about his time working on the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak in Liberia. As for projects, I remember making a little booklet-type project on different types of disease-causing agents. It was colorful and informational, and I realized I loved how useful it was, and that made me want to make things like that to educate others in fun and cute ways.
I learned what epidemiology was and the potential for an interesting career through the epidemiology class, which later helped me choose my major at Indiana University during undergrad. Epidemiology is typically only offered as a master’s degree, not an undergraduate degree, but Indiana University (IU) is one of the only schools in the U.S.—possibly the world—that offers it as a Bachelor of Science in Public Health (BSPH). As a result, once I started my bachelor’s degree, I always knew I would continue to get my master’s.
Why did you decide on Columbia University for the master’s program?
While making my decision on where to attend graduate school, I talked to Ms. Rachel Key, who taught biology while I was in high school at Concordia. She also went to Mailman at Columbia for her master’s degree and she helped me solidify my decision. Ms. Key helped me decide on Columbia by giving me an actual student/alumni's perspective on what it's like to attend Mailman SPH. I was worried that Columbia's reputation would be mainly built on prestige and money and not actual academics and opportunities for students, but she assured me that Columbia has a great alumni network and has so many connections to organizations such as WHO that can really support my career in the future.
You will be joined by two other Concordia graduates at the Mailman School of Public Health. What is your feeling about getting connected with Concordia again?
I will be at Mailman with Vivian Tsao and Emily Lu, both of whom I sang in choir with while at Concordia; Vivian and I also did theatre together. It’s always exciting to see people from Concordia and get caught up on life and all the changes, as well as have that sense of familiarity and shared history.
Girl in STEM: Seizing Opportunities
How did you develop your interest in epidemiology?
I started my time at IU planning on a degree in business and soon found that the program wasn’t for me, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Then I started going to health fairs on campus run by an organization through the IU Student Health Center called the Peer Health and Wellness Educators, and they did all sorts of cool things like health presentations on STIs, stress management workshops, and handing out condoms. I knew I wanted to do something like that and improve the health education programming available to students, and I knew IU had an epidemiology degree, so I switched over to epidemiology during my sophomore year and here I am.
What challenges have you faced in studying epidemiology? What are you most proud of accomplishing?
Studying epidemiology as an undergrad was difficult because, as of right now, jobs that are hiring are looking for people to have their master’s degree. Hopefully that will be changing, especially when we see all the need revealed by the pandemic, and higher education won’t be such a barrier. However, I’m really proud of my ability to get into Columbia University and continue studying what I love. A year ago, before I decided to apply, that wasn’t something that I believed would be possible and now I’ll be there in just a few months.
Could you share some of your epidemiology /public health-related work/research experiences?
I worked at the COVID-19 testing sites at Indiana University, which included directing students on taking their samples and actually running the lab tests, as well as at a flu shot clinic. I also was able to work on some research projects. One tracked transdermal alcohol concentration using a wearable monitor in university students while they were drinking alcohol. The major ones I worked on were a COVID-19 antibody study and a COVID-19 vaccine study.
What advice would you give to younger students (especially girls) interested in STEM-related careers?
Public health is interesting because it’s actually very female-dominated, but there are still a lot of male-dominated STEM fields where it’s hard to break in. I think my best advice would be do what you want to do and grab any opportunities that come your way, even if you don’t think you’re qualified or don’t feel like you belong. The truth is that you do belong, and you deserve to take up space.
I remember I applied for a research assistant position that I didn’t feel qualified for but I ended up getting it and getting experience while making some wonderful connections in my field. Things will generally work out as long as you try new things and keep an open mind.
Also, it’s okay to do things outside your career and major, especially things you love. It helps prevent burnout and keeps you happy. I continued theatre during my time at IU and it provided a nice balance to my work and studying.
What is your ambition in the field of epidemiology?
Infectious diseases are so interesting to me because they attack us from the outside and often we’re unaware of the battleground that our bodies become. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us all that it’s better to prevent disease outbreaks than to take care of them as they’re happening. However, to do so people need knowledge and understanding of diseases, how they’re spread, and what can be done to stop the spread. I want to be able to disperse this information and educate people on health and wellness so they can protect themselves and others in their community. In the U.S., people of color, queer folks, and other minorities are most impacted by the negative effects of health misinformation and lack of education, while also facing greater barriers in combating disease and sickness. It’s important to me that those underserved communities have the information and resources they need to be healthy so I want to work towards making those things available and accessible.
Science curriculum at Concordia High School
At Concordia, students are encouraged to become scientifically literate people who have the networking and processing skills that enable them to learn and think logically while problem solving in a society where technology and knowledge are constantly changing. Science courses are designed to help students appreciate both the value and the limitations of science and technology in order to enhance decision-making and encourage responsible research regarding the efficient use of world resources.
Our High School has offered challenging, elective courses that span the full range of scientific inquiry and many students have participated in these courses over the years.
“I often hear from students that one or more of these courses sparked their interest in a particular area of science. As a teacher, working with students in these courses has been the highlight of my teaching career,” says Mr. Gordon, who developed the elective course, AL Epidemiology, with Mrs. Anne Love and Ms. Kathleen Mahoney around 2016.
“The freedom that Concordia has offered to teachers to develop these kinds of courses is one of the many reasons I found Concordia to be a professionally stimulating environment over the past 13 years,” he adds.
A dedicated and passionate educator, Mr. Gordon also encourages students who have an interest in science to work with their counselor to develop a four-year plan that includes any science courses that might interest them. “Use your high school years to explore and make the most of all that Concordia has to offer.”