Emily Young, MPH, MSEd, was not always involved in public health.
Young first began her career as a high school English teacher, seeking to cultivate an environment of growth and learning for dynamic and curious students. However, despite finding joy in teaching, Young still felt unfulfilled – school did not always feel relevant to her students’ lives, and there was little osmosis between the school and surrounding community.
“I started wondering what it would look like and what needed to be true for school and classroom environments to feel more responsive and relevant to students, families and communities,” said Young. “How might that influence how students feel when at school, as well as other aspects of their lives such as health and academic outcomes?”
Inspired by her own family of community-minded health practitioners, Young began seeking answers for her questions in the field of public health. She returned to school in pursuit of her master’s degree in public health, graduating from George Washington University in 2019. After graduating, Young explored how public health tools and policies can be used to improve the quantity and quality of school health education and promotion across the U.S. as part of the ORISE Research Participation Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The ORISE Research Participation Program at CDC is an educational and training program designed to provide students, recent graduates and university faculty opportunities to participate in project-specific CDC research, current public health research and developmental activities. For her appointment, Young served as part of the Adolescent Development and Population Approaches team in the Research Application and Evaluation Branch (RAEB) of the Division of Adolescent and School Health (DASH), located within CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention (NCHHSTP).
Young’s primary project focused on leading updates to CDC’s Health Education Curriculum Analysis Tool (HECAT). The HECAT is an assessment tool developed by the CDC in partnership with health education experts from state and local education agencies, K-12 schools, colleges and universities and national organizations. The tool provides a structured process to improve health curriculum selection, development and revision, and is CDC’s primary evidence-informed tool for advancing health and sexual health education in schools. The HECAT’s content is aligned with the National Health Education Standards and CDC’s Characteristics of Effective Health Education Curriculum.
“The purpose of this project was to take a systematic look at research from the past decade as to what young people need to know (health-related knowledge) and be able to do (health-related skills) to increase their likelihood of positive health outcomes into adulthood,” said Young.
According to Young, schools play a critical role in promoting adolescent’s health and reducing adolescent health risks through the delivery of effective health education. The updated HECAT supports schools across the U.S. in selecting and implementing more effective health education curricula, which in turn can help young people acquire the health knowledge and skills they need to practice, adopt and maintain healthy behaviors throughout their lives.
During her time at CDC, Young developed many new skills in project management, health-related research and health promotion. She contributed to many other CDC projects in addition to the HECAT initiative, including teacher professional development in sexual health, improving school connectedness and addressing adolescent mental health through schools. Additionally, Young served on CDC’s COVID-19 response in the Community Interventions and Critical Populations Task Force’s K-12 Schools Unit of the Community Guidance Team. Young gained new perspective on how comprehensive health education can be used to meet the developmental needs and experiences of young people, and strengthened her passion for improving public health education in schools.
“This has been an invaluable professional experience that has changed the trajectory of my career for the good,” Young said.
“My favorite part is, without question, the people. Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented countless challenges for those working in and with schools. I deeply admire my colleagues’ brilliance and commitment to their work supporting adolescents and school communities, and have learned much from their resilience and creativity during this time.”
Young is currently pursuing her doctorate in population, family and reproductive health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She has a specific interest in using school-based program design, implementation and evaluation to address health and education outcomes, and hopes to continue working at the intersection of health and education to support schools in creating healthy and supportive environments for youth and families.
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.