From social work to public health: Dr. Kelly Sullivan named one of three COPH 2020 Outstanding Alumni

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When Dr. Kelly Sullivan started college, she had no idea the field of public health existed. “I was a bookworm who loved medicine and math and wanted a career that would focus on helping people,” said Sullivan, who graduated the USF College of Public Health (COPH) with her MSPH in 2002 and her doctorate in 2011. “I graduated with an undergraduate degree in social work and was a geriatric social worker for a few years. But I realized rather quickly that social work wasn’t the ideal fit for me.”

“I didn’t have a specific career in mind at an early age, but I knew I wanted to help people and solve problems,” said Kelly Sullivan, PhD. “I was always interested in medicine and math.” Here, she’s dressed as a NICU nurse for Halloween. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Sullivan)

Still searching for a career that married math and medicine, Sullivan finally stumbled on public health. “I envisioned ‘Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,’ riding through underserved areas, helping communities that lacked medical care. Fortunately, I realized public health was actually a bit different and had many concentrations,” said Sullivan, who wound up concentrating in epidemiology. “I remember pouring through booklets from various programs, trying to settle on a future career path, and I saw the face of Dr. Amy Borenstein at the USF COPH. The booklet highlighted her work in neuroepidemiology. I instantly knew that was the career I had been searching for—and it even had a name!”

Sullivan—who’s worked at the Hillsborough County Health Department as well as the USF College of Nursing and the Morsani College of Medicine—says it’s the interdisciplinary nature of public health that makes her work so attractive. “I’m not limited to one field,” she said, “and I can use my training in a variety of settings.”

Sullivan—who’s worked at the Hillsborough County Health Department as well as the USF College of Nursing and the Morsani College of Medicine—says it’s the interdisciplinary nature of public health that makes her work so attractive. “I’m not limited to one field,” she said, “and I can use my training in a variety of settings.”

Kelly Sullivan at her COPH graduation ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Sullivan)

Today, Sullivan is an associate professor in the department of biostatistics, epidemiology and environmental health sciences in the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Ga.

“I love the diversity of my days,” said Sullivan, who also is a homeschooling mom and a YMCA spin class instructor.  “Epidemiology has so much application to other fields, and I get to work on a variety of projects. Everything I learned in my studies at the COPH has applied in some way. I even use some of the same approaches with my students that my USF professors used with me.”

One of the things Sullivan says she most proud of is the way she’s used her public health skills to advance service opportunities. She volunteers on the Guideline Dissemination Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology and does a lot of evidence-based medicine work. “These service opportunities have been amazing learning and networking experiences,” said Sullivan. “They have helped me see the direct impacts of my work on improving health and health care.”

Another note of pride? The accessibility of her research work. “I think I may be the only COPH graduate whose research has been featured in Cosmopolitan magazine. Several of my studies have gone “viral” been covered on “Today” and in popular magazines such as Shape and Men’s Health.

Sullivan’s immediate plans are to collaborate on more research and continue to advance her teaching skills and professional service. “As cliché as it sounds, it really is about the journey, not just the destination,” she said. “And my journey with the COPH has been invaluable.”

Alumni Fast Five

What did you dream of becoming when you were young?

I didn’t have a specific career in mind at an early age, but I knew I wanted to help people and solve problems. I was always interested in medicine and math.

Where might we find you on the weekends?

My weekends and weekdays look pretty similar—I’m always juggling work and mom life.

What is the last book you read?

It had to be a children’s book, but I don’t remember!

What superpower would you like to have?

I’d like to read people’s minds to know their motivation in various situations.

What is your all-time favorite movie?

“Life Is Beautiful”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health