The Journey of a Scholar

[From left to right: Melissa Horner, Lauren Prox, Laurin Bixby, Max Aung and Ezinne Nwankwo]

In one sense, the journey of an HPRS scholar begins with the single step of submitting an application.

Of course, before the essays are written, the mentors are identified, and the applications are submitted, scholars have already traveled far in their own journeys—from their acceptance to doctoral programs to the multitude of life experiences that have inspired them to pursue research.

Once scholars join the program, it becomes a vital part of their continued personal and professional journey.

How do scholars characterize the part HPRS plays? What do they find most exciting about being a scholar? What have they gained from participating in the program? And how has HPRS impacted their trajectory after graduation?

Current scholars: Building community and connections

Scholars come to HPRS fueled by their own dedication to research aimed at building healthier, more equitable communities. Here, they join a community of other researchers from an array of backgrounds and disciplines—all working toward a vision of achieving health equity through policy and systems change.

It is this community that makes HPRS so important and exciting for scholars as they progress through the program and their own doctoral studies.

Laurin Bixby studies sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, where she focuses her research on how ableism and other systems of inequality can perpetuate discrimination and health inequities. She joined the program as part of the fourth cohort and articulates how important the community has been for her, personally and professionally.

“The most exciting part about the HPRS community is that it’s made up of passionate and empathetic people who want to know each other’s stories and support each other, not only in our academic pursuits, but our lives as a whole,” Bixby says. “I have found the HPRS to be a safe and welcoming community where you can show up as yourself.”

She also notes that getting to know other scholars, both in her cohort and across others, has been incredibly meaningful for her career—especially because of the diversity of other scholars’ academic backgrounds.

“In our academic programs, we are often siloed from other disciplines,” Bixby explains. “During my time in HPRS, I have learned about ways of knowing that I had not considered before.”

“Meeting people who have a shared vision of disability justice has led to meaningful relationships and opened opportunities to collaborate on projects,” she continues. “I would not have these opportunities without HPRS.”

Bixby’s thoughts on the impact of interdisciplinary work are echoed by others.

Lauren Prox comes to the program from Duke University’s Earth and Ocean Sciences program and joined as part of the fifth cohort. With multifaceted research interests at the intersection of air quality, climate change, science communication, social disparities, and health, Prox notes the cross-sector community of HPRS is a valuable component of her experience.

“Being a part of a diverse and inclusive community is so important to me and the HPRS community exemplifies these traits,” Prox shares. “There are so many unique backgrounds and personalities. It is wonderful that we can all come together around our desire to improve our nation’s Culture of Health.”

Melissa Horner, a scholar from the fourth cohort, also lifts up community and diversity as the most exciting parts of the program. She studies sociology at the University of Missouri, with a focus on Native-led health and healing.

“HPRS is the intellectual and relational community I had been seeking—even though I didn’t even know I was,” Horner says. “I have spent what feels like a lot of time feeling alone. What I have experienced since joining the HPRS community is a plethora of connections. It has been the antithesis of feeling isolated and uninvolved.”

“I am so excited about the stimulation and engagement that’s yet to come,” Horner continues. “I’m looking forward to continuing to connect with the most paradoxical people—in a fantastic way—that I’ve ever known.”

Alumni: Prepared for leadership and success

Upon graduation from the program, scholars may still be finishing their doctoral studies or preparing themselves to enter the workforce. They go on to work in a variety of fields—from government to academia to the nonprofit sector and more.

Max Aung was part of the inaugural HPRS cohort and studied environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan. He now works as an assistant professor of population and public health sciences at the University of Southern California, where he teaches and investigates linkages between environmental toxin exposures and health outcomes.

Aung says that the program’s investment in his PhD journey allowed him to explore a range of professional development opportunities, enabling him to get to where he is today.

“HPRS impacted my career trajectory by providing a strong mentorship team that helped me navigate the academic job market,” Aung says. “The networking provided by HPRS—from both other scholars and HPRS faculty—has resulted in long-term collaborations. It has also taught me strategies to develop a strong research program.”

Another HPRS graduate, Ezinne Nwankwo, was part of the third cohort and studied community health sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles. When reflecting on her HPRS journey, she notes the significance of the program in molding and bolstering her leadership abilities.

“One of the most important lessons I learned from HPRS was that I could bring all of who I am to leadership,” Nwankwo says. “Redefining what leadership looks like has allowed me to aim much higher in setting personal and professional goals.”

She also notes that the program was an integral supplement to her graduate training.

“HPRS provided practical experiences that allowed me to translate what I was learning in my doctoral program into concrete policy objectives,” Nwankwo affirms. “It also increased my confidence in communicating findings from academic research to diverse audiences—especially policymakers and their staff—to ensure that my research and work will elevate policy solutions.”

A common journey with many paths

While scholars and alumni are at different points in their journeys, they are all part of the ever-growing HPRS network of leaders committed to building a Culture of Health. And while they take different paths, their journeys all require steadfast dedication to new solutions that challenge the status quo and create systemic change.

Reflecting on their experience, scholars say that the program has deepened their dedication, simultaneously pushing them to grow and gifting them with a supportive network and lasting friendships.

Melissa Horner sums it up this way: “HPRS has changed who I am, not only as a scholar, but as a person, too.”


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