Student Profile: Noah Hopkins

Noah Hopkins, a Master of Public Health student now transitioning to the doctoral degree in the College of Public Health, conducts research aimed at improving mental health support for rural farmers. He credits the insights and opportunities gained during his academic journey at the College for helping him find his career path in public health.

“I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work on a seed grant that examined sources of stress and coping mechanisms in farmers living in Georgia. It really opened my eyes to the realities of being a farmer in this state and gave me a much more nuanced appreciation for the people that we rely on for food in this country,” he said.

Master of Public Health
Doctor of Philosophy in Health Promotion & Behavior

Summer 2023 (for MPH)

Bachelor of Science in Health Promotion (BSHP), University of Georgia

Atlanta, Georgia

What is your academic/professional background? How did this set you on your path in public health?

I completed my undergraduate degree in health promotion at UGA in 2018. I think my early experiences in undergrad, particularly writing about harm reduction strategies for injection drug use, played a significant role in leading me here, even if I was not aware of it at the time. I was consistently impressed by how well researchers were able to make their arguments in favor of expanded harm reduction practices, and this almost always connected back to a foundation in research.

From individual interviews with people who utilized these services, to analyses of the impact of harm reduction on poor health outcomes associated with injection drug use and healthcare expenditure on a national level, these arguments were all rooted in evidence from various studies. The quality of this data made the difference between saying “I feel that this is helpful” and “here is evidence as to why this is helpful.” This distinction really struck a chord with me, and I think that is where I began to develop a real passion for scientific research as a tool for making airtight arguments that, hopefully, translate into productive decision making at the policy level.

Why led you to pursue both a Master of Public Health and Ph.D. degree? Why UGA?

I am continuing my studies in the Department of Health Promotion and Behavior, which is the same department I have been involved with since I was admitted to the College of Public Health in pursuit of my undergraduate degree. I have had great experiences with the faculty in this department and feel very supported in my academic pursuits since I arrived.

I am pursuing an MPH as a part of my work towards a PhD in Health Promotion. I think that the practitioner focus of our Master’s program was especially helpful in setting the foundation that I will build upon in my pursuit of the PhD. While the focus is different, the knowledge I gained in the MPH program has already been extremely helpful in some of the doctorate-level coursework, I have been exposed to. After completing the MPH degree, I plan to continue pursuing my studies and working towards my PhD.

I have always enjoyed the process of academic attainment and learning in general, which definitely predisposed me to this track even if it was not something that I had necessarily envisioned for myself. I think what really appeals to me about a PhD is the depth of knowledge that is required, and the fact that you need to be well-versed in many different topics to complete it successfully. Beyond needing a working understanding of the relationship between theory and practice, research methodology, and data analysis, you need to be able to apply each of those disciplines to your research question. I like the idea of being a polymath, and see the completion of a PhD as one way to pursue that as a goal.

What particular area/field of public health are you passionate about?

I am specifically interested in substance abuse. The majority of my undergraduate work was focused on harm reduction strategies, specifically for individuals experiencing opiate dependence. Many of the courses offered in our undergraduate program allowed me to explore substance use issues through several different lenses. I completed my undergraduate capstone course by working with the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition, a syringe exchange program that operates in the Atlanta Area.

My internship with the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition was a great way to round out the work I had done in my classes, which was more abstract. It gave me great insight into what harm reduction looks like on the ground, which is something that can be challenging to grasp in a classroom setting. I felt like my time at the AHRC was the best possible way I could have rounded out my undergraduate experience for this exact reason. While my work has become more alcohol-focused in graduate school, I still find harm reduction to be a fascinating topic that I hope to return to at some point in the future.

How are you incorporating your interest in applied research into your MPH internship?

As I am pursuing a PhD after I complete the MPH program, I will be taking the applied research track for the internship. In lieu of interning at a worksite, I will be continuing to conduct research in the farming community and preparing a journal article based on the findings. This research gave me a real understanding of the hidden work that contributes to my quality of life, something I was taking for granted in a big way. Seeing the equipment and labor hours that go into producing a bale of cotton, or any produce or animal product that you see nicely packaged on a store shelf, gave me a new appreciation for the luxuries that we all enjoy.

I think it’s easy for so many of us to look at a chicken breast or a bushel of asparagus in the grocery without thinking about the individuals who dedicate their time to cultivate and nurture those goods from seed to finished product, and the energy and commitment that it takes to do that. While I think it would certainly be interesting and rewarding to take the knowledge I gained from the Master’s program into the real world, it is also important that I continue developing my ability to communicate the results and significance of my research experience to expand what we know about mental health in the farming community.

What activities/achievements/awards during your time here are you most proud of?

The achievement that I am the proudest of are the two published journal articles that I was a part of as an MPH student (read about one of them here). I was very lucky to have the opportunity to work on and learn from that project from early in the process and to see those articles published after a considerable amount of work was satisfying to say the least.

Traveling to present that research at conferences was also very rewarding, but going through the peer review process provides a different level of appreciation for the experience to me. Hearing from other people in the research space that what you are working on is interesting and compelling to them always makes me feel good about the work that I am doing. So little research is conducted on the farming population in this country that when other people express interest it makes me hopeful that more people will start engaging with the topic in greater numbers.

What do you consider to be the highlight of your time at the College so far?

Choosing one highlight is challenging, but I think it would have to be my work in the farming community. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work on a seed grant that examined sources of stress and coping mechanisms in farmers living in Georgia, which was very eye-opening. Growing up in Atlanta, I did not have much opportunity to spend much time around the farming community.

Without that project, I doubt that I ever would have. It really opened my eyes to the realities of being a farmer in this state and gave me a much more nuanced appreciation for the people that we rely on for food in this country. The first iteration of this research was conducting recorded interviews with farmers across the state that explored stress and coping strategies in the farming population across the state of Georgia. We traveled to a number of farms to meet with farmers and talk with them about their experience farming, the things that they found stressful about their profession, and how they and their peers managed that stress.

That research also led to the opportunity to present the findings of this project at conferences and through journal articles, which was a special experience that I would not have otherwise had. Sharing research findings is always exciting, and while waiting to hear back about potential revisions to a manuscript is a bit taxing, I feel that receiving feedback from peers in the research space is really helpful for improving the clarity of your writing.

Posted on April 13, 2023.