Dr. Catherine Bulka receives competitive NIH loan forgiveness award

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According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average amount of student debt incurred by a person with a PhD (outside of education) now sits at about $98,000.

And the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which sponsors several loan repayment programs (LRPs) designed to recruit and retain health professionals into biomedical and biobehavioral research careers, notes that 65 percent are in debt up to $150,000.

“I first took out student loans back in 2006 to support my undergraduate studies,” said Dr. Catherine Bulka, a USF College of Public Health assistant professor who specializes in environmental and molecular epidemiology. “Then I took out additional loans to cover the costs of my MPH program. Although I’ve made progress at paying these off over the years, the financial burden remains significant.”

Catherine Bulka, PhD. (Photo by Caitlin Keough).

Bulka applied for and received an LRP in the Emerging Areas Critical to Human Health subcategory. Only about 50 percent of applicants overall are accepted into an LRP, which repays up to $100,000 over two years of a researcher’s educational debt. In exchange for that loan repayment, the individual agrees to engage in research that is relevant to the NIH.

Bulka’s work centers on the environmental and health effects of red tide.

“I described a new idea to conduct epidemiologic studies of red tide,” Bulka explained. “I didn’t even know what red tide was before I moved here, but I was pretty shocked to find out how disruptive it can be to tourism and how toxic it is for marine life. That made me interested in learning more about the health effects on coastal residents, and I was surprised I didn’t find more research in the literature. I’m really passionate about using my epidemiologic skillset to investigate issues that affect my local community, so it feels especially meaningful to be recognized for that with this award.” 

Being able to focus on research, instead of loan repayment, is a “huge relief,” Bulka commented.

“I’d encourage any postdocs and faculty here at the COPH with student loan debt to apply for the program,” she said. “I was so lucky to benefit from others sharing their application materials with me and I want to pay that forward. If anyone is considering applying and would like to see my application as an example, please feel free to reach out.”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health