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From UNC to the CDC: How One Alumna is Creating Global Change

Meagan Cain CDC

Office of Alumni RelationsOffice of Alumni Relations
March 12, 2019

Like many students, Meagan Cain ’15 wasn’t exactly sure what she wanted to do after graduating from college.

“I knew that I wanted to work with people, but not so much in a medical sense. I wanted to address wider social issues, but I didn’t figure out what public health really was until I graduated with my bachelor’s degree from CSU,” Cain says. “I did a lot of traveling and spent some time with friends in Peace Corps villages and saw what they were doing working with groups at the community level to address disparities in health. I suddenly went, ‘oh my gosh,’ this is what I want! This is what I want to do. How can I do this? How can I make a career of this?”

That’s when she discovered the Colorado School of Public Health. A unique collaboration between UNC, the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and Colorado State University, Colorado School of Public Health is the first and only school of public health in the Rocky Mountain region.

Although Cain earned her undergraduate degree from Colorado State University, she immediately felt a connection with Master of Public Health program at UNC.

“I decided on UNC for a number of reasons. It’s a community health education track and it was really focused on what they could do to get me where I wanted to be and how the school could work with me to get the most out of my education,” Cain says. “Global health is such a competitive field that you often get told that you’re not going to be good enough, or you can’t do it. Whereas, the advisors at UNC were really focused on how they could help get me there.”

While attending UNC, Cain had the opportunity to work as a health educator with what is now known as the Immigrant and Refugee Center of Northern Colorado. She also assisted with the National HIV Behavioral Study as a Research Assistant with Denver Public Health – her first glimpse of work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Now she’s working full-time for the CDC in what she calls her dream job, as a Health Scientist specializing in in gender-based violence on the Gender & Youth Team within the HIV Prevention Branch.

An opportunity achieved thanks in large part to the encouragement she received from faculty at UNC.

“My advisor knew that I was really interested in global health and she suggested I apply for this fellowship, at the time it was called the Allan Rosenfield Global Health Fellowship. It was a pretty competitive program and I was hesitant, but she played a big part in encouraging me to apply,” Cain says. “By really good luck and being able to communicate my experiences to the CDC, I was offered this fellowship and it was the fellowship that lead directly into being hired as a Health Scientist.”

As a Health Scientist, Cain works to ensure that CDC programs are running with the best science and reaching the right people with the right interventions.

“I primarily work in Sub-Saharan Africa. I get to go to some really exciting places and work with some amazing people in often really difficult contexts. Especially working in gender-based violence, we see a lot of things that are pretty disheartening, but we also see a lot of progress,” Cain says. “The CDC supports a lot of clinical care in facilities around the world and part of what we do is post-violence care. It’s often called post-rape care, but it’s the kind of medical care that an individual would seek after experiencing violence or sexual violence in a facility.”

Since starting work with the CDC in 2016, Cain has helped dozens of individuals and communities see better health outcomes. In fact, one of her proudest accomplishments is contributing to the development of the Gender Based Violence Quality Assurance Tool – a set of standards for post-violent care that ensure it’s delivered with quality. 

“It’s the first ever tool of its kind for measuring quality and assuring quality of post-rape violence care. We worked with experts around the world to pull this tool together,” Cain says. “It's been co-branded by the World Health Organization (WHO) to signify recognition of the tool as a best global practice. So now that we’ve developed this tool, we’re in the process of actually rolling it out. We’re working with country governments, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Uganda and we get to do the work ensuring that these quality assessments take place and we can actually see the quality improve in facilities.”

Cain says she owes much of her success today to the experience and support she had while attending UNC.

She encourages others with an interest global health to get involved here at home and connect with other public health professionals.

“With global health, there’s sometimes this perception that you need to have a lot of experience working around the world. That you need to be able to fly to Africa and work in a small village and be able to have it on your resume to break into global health,” Cain says.  “Even though I work in gender-based violence now in Africa, I started working in Colorado as a rape crisis advocate and addressing these issues locally and getting that experience so that I didn’t have to just immediately try to go somewhere really far away in the world. In fact, there’s a lot of the same issues that are here in the United States.”

The work Cain does abroad isn’t often easy or comfortable. For example, on her last assignment in Nigeria she got stuck in a small elevator in 110-degree heat, but at the end of the day, she still loves her job and what she gets to accomplish.

“Sometimes when I talk to people, they think the CDC must be so glamorous, traveling all over the world that sounds so magical right? The work can be very exciting, but it’s not always what you think,” Cain says. “A lot of it is uncomfortable and hot and sweaty and exhausting. I guess that’s kind of what keeps it interesting. It’s worth it. The elevators breaking down, the mosquitoes, the big bugs, the rats, it’s all worth it.”

Meagan's Journey to Nepal

You may remember Meagan Cain from a 2016 story in UNC Magazine titled "My Journey to Nepal," in which Cain details her experience delivering aid to Kathmandu immediately following a devastating earthquake.

Read the full story here. 

Meagan Cain Nepal