An epidemiologist explains why earning your master’s in public health can be ‘critical’ for your career

BY Sydney LakeApril 21, 2022, 1:05 PM
Lilian Peake, Virginia’s state epidemiologist. (Courtesy Lilian Peake)

Lilian Peake, Virginia’s state epidemiologist, stumbled upon a master’s degree program in public health while she was studying to take the MCAT, the entrance exam for medical school. The communications and public relations professional had always envisioned attending medical school, but she was intrigued by the idea of earning an MPH during her “gap year,” the time she was using to study for the MCAT. 

In the mid-1990s, Peake was accepted into the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where she earned her master’s degree in public health the year before starting medical school at the University of Virginia. While she began a residency in ophthalmology, Peake missed aspects of her undergraduate and prior career experience in communications and marketing, along with what she learned during her MPH program. That’s why she ultimately decided to pursue public health as a career.

“Public health is a multidisciplinary field. You’re looking at programs and policies to prevent disease rather than just treat diseases that people already have,” Peake tells Fortune. “For a career in public health you wear a lot of hats, and I was attracted to that.”

Peake now serves in leadership for the Virginia Department of Health (VDH)—and did so for the entirety of the COVID-19 pandemic. She worked in public health at the local level for 13 years before moving to the VDH with a goal to help form better connections between local and state health departments. 

Fortune spoke with Peake about how she uses her MPH as a state epidemiologist, whether the COVID-19 pandemic sparked greater interest in public health, and what type of careers you can pursue with the degree. 

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Behind the scenes of a public health professional

Fortune: What do public health professionals do and why is it important?

Peake: We’re looking at understanding what the needs are of the community, looking at data, and then making sure that you have programs in place and relationships with all of the different stakeholders in the community to improve health. 

For example: Food safety. If you look over the 20th century, the death rate from infectious disease decreased dramatically. There used to be a very high death rate from people that had enteric diseases and they were becoming infected with pathogens through water or food that wasn’t safe. Just working through the programs at the local health department to ensure that food is safe, to make sure that there’s clean water, that you’re keeping sewage away from water. On the ground at the local health department, you have people that are doing that work.

You can really get a very good sense of just these basic public health measures that we have to maintain in our community to ensure that people are healthy and to ensure that infectious diseases are kept at bay—unless we have an emerging disease like COVID-19. 

Fortune: How does public health differ from clinical medicine?

Peake: In public health, we have these interdisciplinary teams and that’s because if you really look at what it takes to make a community healthy, there’s so many aspects of that.

Medical care is a very small part of what makes a community healthy. It’s about clean water, and mosquito control, and making sure that you’re identifying infectious diseases early and controlling outbreaks. It’s healthy eating and designing communities in a way that they’re walkable so people can easily exercise. Clean air. It’s all of those different things. All of those components are needed for a healthy community. 

But you need people who just have a lot of experience in data analysis and epidemiology, you need people who have a background in bio, mental health. You need nutritionists. You need nurses. You need a team that has a varied background. 

As a medical doctor, you also serve as the medical epidemiologist. Having a background in medicine helps in many ways as your role on this interdisciplinary team. It gives you a foundation of really understanding diseases, understanding how they affect the individual. It helps you understand the role of primary care doctors and other physicians in quickly identifying diseases and reporting things to public health. It really gives you a good foundation to understand individual disease. 

How a master’s degree in public health factors in

Fortune: How do you use your MPH in your work?

Peake: I understand how the disease affects the person and how diseases affect the population as a whole. My role at the local level was I was director of the health department and I also served as the medical epidemiologist. I was the only physician at the local health department who was helping to investigate all of the reportable conditions. 

The role of state epidemiologist varies from state to state, but in Virginia we serve as a medical epidemiologist and also a leader of one of the largest offices at the Virginia Department of Health. So there’s two components to that. 

When there isn’t a large disease outbreak, most of what my job is is leadership, so that’s very similar to what I did in my previous roles. It’s leading public health organizations. But during the pandemic, of course, I took on more operations roles leading the operations response for the pandemic and as a subject matter expert about the condition. 

We were hands-on, working around the clock. We also were working under the incident command system, so just a lot of focus on one particular disease. I will say a lot of that was on top of my regular job, so all of us were working many, many, many hours, but obviously a lot of focus was on one particular condition. 

The pandemic and public health

Fortune: Did COVID-19 spark more of an interest in public health?

Peake: Even before the pandemic when I was at the local level and working really closely with the University of Virginia, I had the opportunity to see many students who sparked an interest in public health. That’s been really rewarding in my career, too, to share what a public health career is and provide mentorship to different students who are interested in pursuing that. 

Overall, since I started, I’ve seen many more public health [programs]. There’s been a growing awareness and interest in public health—and it’s quite different from when I first started. And then I think the pandemic has obviously brought even more awareness. 

Before the pandemic, most people didn’t know what an epidemiologist was. I think that it started before the pandemic, but the pandemic brought it even more into people’s living rooms—to understand what looking at the data and what we’re trying to do and how important it is to track diseases so that you can use that information to inform policies and strategies to keep communities healthy. 

The future of public health

Fortune: What is your advice to aspiring public health professionals?

Peake: It is a multidisciplinary approach. I do think that we need people with lots of different backgrounds. Veterinarians, physicians, nurses, mental health specialists, data analysts, data scientists, nutritionists. Having all of those backgrounds within governmental public health are really important. Also, just people who understand policy, health education, communications. It really takes all of those skills to make public health work well. 

The problem is if you have that background, you don’t necessarily know that public health is an option. I think getting your master’s in public health is important on top of that background. Being just a medical doctor, you don’t have the training to really understand the population health aspects of health. You don’t receive that in your medical training or nursing training. The dual degree, I think, is important. I think a master’s in public health provides a very unique training to really understand population-level analysis and policy. 

You can be very successful in public health with many different foundational educational experiences, but I do think a master’s in public health is critical in making sure that you know then how to apply that background at a population-health level. You learn some of the practices and programming that are so critical to public health. 

See how the schools you’re considering landed in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s in public health programsbusiness analytics programsdata science programs, and part-timeexecutive, full-time, and online MBA programs.