Thinking outside the walls

MES in the Community, Jana A. Hirsch

Some epidemiologists study the way diseases move; Jana A. Hirsch (Master of Environmental Studies ’10) studies the way people move. Jana has worked with collaborative research centers across North America to conduct longitudinal studies of where and how residents travel in major cities. “The beauty of epidemiology as a field is that it’s more of a way of thinking about the world,” she says. “I happen to apply it to neighborhoods and differences across space and place or race and socioeconomic status.”

A similarly pragmatic and intersectional approach shaped Jana’s academic trajectory. After a summer internship in soil science cemented Jana’s interest in urban environments, she took evening classes from Penn’s Master of Environmental Studies (MES) program while completing her undergraduate studies at the same time. She began applying to doctoral programs on the heels of her concurrent Penn degrees. “I was going to find all of the researchers who do what I am interested in, which is food environments and nutrition,” she recalls, “and I was going to contact all of them, I didn't care what field they were in.” Taking this approach, Jana applied to PhD programs in geography, epidemiology, nutrition and social behavior—and was accepted into six programs. “Suddenly it was like, would I like to be a PhD in epidemiology or a PhD in geography?” she laughs. “I was very lucky to be guided by the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowship and everybody in the MES program. I would never have had the opportunities I’ve had without amazing mentorship at every level.”

In addition to faculty and mentor support, Jana credits the varied, interdisciplinary nature of MES with her successful applications to doctoral programs in so many different disciplines. “Penn allowed me to focus on the problems I'm interested in without a strong emphasis on discipline boundaries,” she says. “The work I do crosses geography, urban planning, public health, population science, demography, you name it.”

Today, as an assistant research professor in the Urban Health Collaborative, Jana teaches in both the Dornsife School of Public Health and the Westphal College of Media Arts and Design at Drexel University, and her research has expanded from food environments to include built environments and the numerous social structures that influence physical activity and health. In the classroom, she encourages her students to think outside the walls as well—whether that means sending them out of the classroom to explore how the urban environment shapes their behavior, or encouraging them to think big when it comes to careers. “The advice I give is that you should follow the things that interest you, and you should be working on things that matter to you,” she says. “There are a lot of different paths you can take.”