From Mollusks to Maternal Health in Public Health: Courtney Rogers, PhD, MPH

Headshot of Courtney Rogers, PhD, MPH

Courtney Rogers, PhD, MPH

From mollusks to maternal health, Courtney Rogers, PhD, MPH, was working toward a public health career even when she did not know it. Growing up in Virginia, Courtney was undecided on her choice of a major on entering UVA, but she has certainly found her niche. Earning her bachelor’s degree with the first cohort of students in Global Public Health, Courtney went on to receive her master’s in Public Health Sciences with the 4+1 program. Then, while serving a 2-year fellowship in the Public Health Associate Program with the CDC, she decided to return to UVA to study Systems and Information Engineering. In May 2023, Courtney graduated with a PhD, and now works in the Epidemic Intelligence Service at CDC.

During her early studies at UVA, Courtney interned at the National Fish Health Research Laboratory, part of the US Geological Survey (USGS), of the Department of the Interior in West Virginia. While there she studied giant African land snails, which were being illegally imported to be used in a cultural ritual in which people were ingesting them and getting sick with various diseases. This project prompted Courtney’s initial interest in public health. She said with concern, “I wanted to know how to educate people about the dangers of these snails. How do you tell people they can’t do something that is part of their cultural context? You can’t really do that but must find alternatives. We started thinking–is this a question for the CDC? How is this public health related?”

Going on to pursue her MPH at UVA, Courtney worked with mentors Rupa Valdez, PhD, Associate Professor of Public Health Sciences and Systems and Information Engineering, and David Edmunds, PhD, Global Development Studies Track Director and Associate Professor of Global Studies, in partnership with Joy Johnson, Holly Edwards, and the public housing community of Westhaven in Charlottesville for the Integrated Learning Experience (ILE) project, part of the MPH requirements. From a community-based participatory research model, Courtney assisted in conducting focus groups with public housing residents to co-design strategies for chronic disease prevention, including interventions such as community gardens and coupon programs. Courtney also attended the Study Abroad program in South Africa with Chris Colvin, PhD, MA, Professor of Public Health Sciences, where she received training in ethnography studying youth masculinity.

In 2019, Courtney began the PhD program in Systems and Information Engineering at UVA, with a concentration in Human Factors Engineering (HFE). The specific focus of HFE is on designing interactions for fit between humans, the technologies they use, the tasks they seek to complete, and the environments in which they are embedded. The field applies psychological and physiological principles to engineering and the design of products, processes, and systems to reduce human error, and enhance safety, health, and comfort.

Courtney convinced Dr. Valdez, who is also an Associate Professor in the Department of Systems and Information Engineering, to be her dissertation mentor. Courtney’s interest was to align Engineering—meaning, changing the system–to fit with the person. She explained, “How do we expand engineering to public health? How do we align tools, technology, and policy to use them to promote public health and use it for intervention and policy development?”

For her dissertation, Courtney conducted community-based participatory research with Dr. Valdez working with the Greater Richmond Maternal Child Health Equity Task Force to address transportation barriers to maternal health services. Courtney worked with community partners to design a study that looked at how a multitude of factors, such as childcare, employment policies, technology, and financial constraints, interact to create systemic barriers to transportation for low-income birthing people. Courtney interviewed birthing people, healthcare professionals, and human services professionals to understand the challenges from multiple perspectives. The first step was to categorize barriers into domains such as the built environment, policy, and social context, and then map their interactions and resulting outcomes. Throughout this process, Courtney trained and mentored undergraduate student Sophia Jang (Global Public Health 2024).

Courtney received numerous awards throughout her time as a doctoral student, including the UVA Engineering Outstanding Graduate Student Award, the Raven Award, and the All-University Graduate Teaching Award. Courtney also received the School of Engineering and Applied Science Endowed Fellowship three years in a row. Having an impressive publication record, Courtney published nine peer-reviewed journal articles, organized four conference panels, served as a panelist for six conference panels, gave six conference podium presentations, and organized one conference workshop. Courtney was also the recipient of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Women’s Organization for Mentorship and Networking Rising Star Award.

After a 4-day interview and match process, Courtney was one of 80 people chosen to serve in the Epidemic Intelligence Service of the CDC, a globally recognized fellowship program renowned for its investigative and emergency response efforts. Matched with the Office of Health Equity, Courtney described her new job, “I will be working to advance the science and practice of health equity through epidemiological research focused on understanding the relationship between the social and structural determinants and health outcomes among marginalized populations.”

Congratulations on your successes, Courtney! We are excited to see what you do next in Public Health!