Student Highlight – Leah Frerichs grew up on a farm near Akron, a small town in northwest Iowa. When she began her college career, she didn’t know what she wanted to do. She enjoyed math and science, so she thought engineering seemed like a good fit. What she did know was that she wanted a career where she could help others improve their health and quality of life, and that decision led her to choose biomedical engineering for her undergraduate major. After three years, however, she realized she was not passionate about the work and felt there had to be a better way to impact more people’s lives. When she discovered the field of public health, she was drawn to the idea of improving health at the community level rather than one individual at a time. She switched her major and started her journey in public health.
After completing a master’s degree, Leah worked for a non-profit agency managing a cancer education and outreach program for tribes in Nebraska, Iowa, and the Dakotas. It was an eye-opening experience that confirmed she had made the right decision and reinforced her passion for public health. She valued the opportunity to work with many different organizations, especially at a grassroots/community level, and across many disciplines. She decided to return to school to pursue a PhD in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Research at the UNMC College of Public Health (COPH) to further develop her skills in working with underserved communities, developing programs, creating sustainable change, and bridging research and practice.
Leah finds the newness and growth of the COPH exciting, and she takes advantage of opportunities that arise. Through her graduate assistantship, she has been part of projects testing innovative strategies with capacity to create sustainable changes that will impact underserved communities. For example, Leah is currently working on the evaluation of a school in rural Virginia being redesigned and renovated with consideration of how the environment could better support healthy eating. Through this project, she traveled to Germany to explore potential collaborative activities with individuals from sectors including public health, architecture, and education. She is fascinated by the possibilities of how a school—down to the furniture it uses—has the potential to influence the health and well-being of its students.
Following graduation, Leah plans to pursue a career combining research, practice, and teaching in an academic setting. Her goals are to conduct research in the area of chronic disease prevention and to continue to be involved in multilevel, multidisciplinary projects to positively impact diverse populations.