Growing up, Carissa Rocheleau and her siblings were encouraged by their mother, who was unable to pursue a college education, to be voracious readers. She recalled having her mother explain to librarians that yes, Rocheleau wanted to roam past the children’s section of the library. She devoured books normally well beyond children of her young age, including the entire collected works of Shakespeare during the summer after the 2nd grade. She loved the poetic language and loved to learn.
As she grew, Rocheleau’s inquisitive nature and drive guided her toward STEM, where she could embrace a path of lifelong learning. She started her journey with a bachelor’s in biochemistry, molecular biology and environmental studies from Cornell College. At the time she had never heard the word epidemiology and had no idea what a big part of her life it would become.
In her first job she worked for the state public health laboratory in Iowa, where she was first exposed to the field of epidemiology. “I love how pragmatic epidemiology is—you use all the best available science and deductions to make practical decisions to mitigate risk and improve health right now,” she said.
Building on this new-found passion, Rocheleau went on to earn both her masters and doctorate degrees in epidemiology from the University of Iowa. However, as a first-generation college student and a growing scientist who was paying her own way through college, she yearned for more mentorship opportunities and paid experiences.
“Although I had excellent teachers, at the time they didn't have programs for first-generation students,” noted Rocheleau. “Most of the interesting STEM summer internships were unpaid, and since I was paying my own way I just couldn't afford that.”
Now, as an epidemiologist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which is a part of the CDC, Rocheleau is fulfilling the mentorship role she had always wanted. The CDC Research Participation Programs are educational and training programs designed to provide students, recent graduates and university faculty opportunities to participate in project-specific CDC research, current public health research and developmental activities. Through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE), she is serving as a mentor for up-and-coming scientists with the CDC’s Epidemiology Fellowship.
“I am really proud to be able to give outstanding students some of the opportunities I wished for,” said Rocheleau.
Most of her past mentees are still affiliated with the CDC, such as Veronica Burkel, who turned her research with Rocheleau into her thesis. Burkel would go on to become a CDC contractor after graduation.
Two of her mentees, Albeliz Santiago-Colón and Kristen Van Buren, saw their fellowships overlapping. Rocheleau noted that this was a positive experience as Santiago-Colón and Van Buren became friends, with Santiago-Colón taking up the role as an unofficial peer-mentor for Van Buren. Both mentees put research into the National Birth Defects Prevention Study, where they learned about hazardous materials exposure during pregnancy and birth defects that can be caused by it.
Not all of Rocheleau’s mentees have decided to pursue a career in epidemiology. Christina Kander, who started on the epidemiology team as an ORISE intern, quickly developed a keen interest in the industrial hygiene field. Rocheleau took notice and supported Kander in exploring those interests. This was a positive change in the long run.
“I encouraged her to do more of the work she loved and supported her in forming a mentoring relationship with an industrial hygienist. Since then, she has decided to go back to grad school for a doctorate in industrial hygiene. I’m happy that I was able to help her find her career path that she finds fulfilling,” said Rocheleau.
Other skills that she hopes to give to her mentees are “soft skills,” such as how to handle confrontation or unresponsive colleagues. Discussing mentees’ futures, developing their technical skills and encouraging them to be open to not having all the answers adds higher value to her mentees’ fellowships.
Rocheleau described some of the other joys of mentoring new scientists. She was a part of two mentees’ dissertation committees, meaning she was one of the established scientists who would decide whether they earned their doctoral degree or not. When both mentees passed with flying colors Rocheleau enjoyed seeing their faces when called “doctor” for the first time.
Watching mentees grow into confident scientists is her favorite part of being a mentor. Being such a great support to her mentees has paid off, as Rocheleau and many of her mentees remain in touch even after their fellowships end. She says that she is tremendously proud of all of them.
Outside of her position at NIOSH and her mentorship with ORISE Rocheleau is a proud dog parent, a nature lover, and a self-described “unskilled, but enthusiastic artist.” Above all, Rocheleau is still a bookworm and lover of learning, two attributes that make her a good mentor and researcher.
Science can be hard on the ego, Rocheleau said. But, through a paraphrased quote from Einstein, she hopes to inspire her mentees to look past the ego: “If we already knew what we were doing, then it wouldn’t be science now would it?”
The program is managed by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) under an agreement between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). ORISE focuses on scientific initiatives including educating the next generation of scientists and is managed for DOE by ORAU.