Like many high school students who excel in the quantitative sciences and express a desire to enter health care, Helen Ann Lawless (BCHS '18) was encouraged to become a doctor. Despite having an interest in the social aspects of health, for the longest time she thought it was her only option.
“Once I discovered the field of public health, I knew I could still be involved in the health field while exploring my interests in population health,” she says. “I changed my major from neuroscience to sociology and never looked back.”
Lawless attended the University of Pittsburgh, where she had the opportunity to assist with research at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. While working on one particular project, she says she stumbled on variables related to the subject’s parental education level and birth weight that didn’t make sense to her to include. She later learned these were indicative of socioeconomic status (SES) at birth and that children of low SES at birth are more likely to develop chronic age-related diseases regardless of whether or not they move up later in life.
“I was fascinated but also shocked,” Lawless says. “This phenomenon was deeply unfair. My mentor told me that people in the public health field study and address health equity issues like this one, and I knew then that I wanted to pursue a career in public health so I could address these disparities.”
It was Lawless’ participation in the Pitt Summer Edge Program in Public and Global Health that first introduced her to Pitt Public Health. Through the program, open exclusively to Pitt undergraduates interested in public health, Lawless took graduate-level courses and was able to work one on one with faculty members in intensive academic and experiential settings.
“Pitt doesn't have an undergrad major in public health, so I felt that this was the best way to study the topics I was passionate about while gaining meaningful field experience through the program’s research and practice component,” says Lawless. “I fell in love with the faculty; everyone was so passionate and supportive.” She credits Associate Professors Candace Kammerer and Martha Terry as well as Carol Reichbaum of the Center for Public Health Practice for giving her “a summer that truly changed my life” and says the emphasis on multidisciplinary collaboration was a key component of why she chose Pitt Public Health.
Now a Dean’s Scholar and dual-degree student pursuing a Master of Public Health and Master of Social Work through Pitt’s School of Social Work, Lawless has narrowed her focus to sexual assault prevention and education, a topic for which she developed a passion while working for Pitt’s Office of Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Education (SHARE). She hopes to someday reform sex education in the United States—a lofty goal she realizes, but she believes the MPH/MSW degree program will provide her with the tools she needs to advocate for and enact meaningful social change in the way America talks about and views sex.
“As a country, we don’t talk enough about consent. We don’t talk enough about non-heteronormative relationships or healthy sexuality either. This lack of education creates a lot of financial, physical, and emotional burden. I want to change that.”
As she reflects on her journey from a Pitt undergraduate to a Pitt graduate student, Lawless says she’s grateful for the countless opportunities afforded to her by the University to grow as a student, woman, athlete, and now budding professional.
“I'm so thankful to be a ‘Pitt Lifer’ as it were, and I plan to continue to capitalize on the educational enrichment and networking opportunities that Pitt throws my way,” she says. “Thank you, and Hail to Pitt!”