Beach to study public health at George Washington University

Beach to study public health at George Washington University 

May 22, 2019

Sometimes you have to move away to realize that what you needed was already waiting for you at home.

That’s what Colby Beach ’19 soon realized after starting his college career out of state.

As a student at Alcoa High School, he was eager to leave Blount County, so he enrolled at American University in Washington, D.C. His stepfather attended AU and had a great experience, and Beach was accepted to the honors program.

He initially thought he wanted to be a doctor and started pursuing a major in biochemistry, but he decided to switch to public health after being introduced to the program during his fall semester.

“My initial interest in public health was sparked in high school, when my biology teacher, Hardy DeYoung ’73 (who is now an adjunct instructor of biology at Maryville College), had us read Richard Preston’s Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus,” Beach said. “I put that interest to the side, because I wasn’t sure whether that was a career option. But then I learned that there was a lot I could do in that field.”

He became active in the university’s public health student groups, attended public health-related hearings in Washington, D.C., and tried to get involved in research. Still, he felt like something was missing. He had made great friends, but he still wasn’t sure that a large school was for him.

Summer research

He came home that summer, looking for research opportunities for undergraduate students. He talked to Dr. Traci Haydu, chair of the Division of Education and associate professor of exercise science at Maryville College, whom Beach had known since his freshman year in high school (through his mother, Denise Cantrell, who is a data administrator at MC) and asked about research opportunities at Maryville College.

She connected him with Dr. Jeremy Steeves, assistant professor of exercise science at MC, who was supervising another student’s undergraduate research project that summer.

“That summer, Colby volunteered to help with a variety of primary data collection research opportunities, including dedicating over 100 hours to help assess the physical activity behaviors of greenway users in Alcoa and Maryville,” Steeves said.

This required three data collection sessions per day – starting at 6 a.m. and ending at 7 p.m. – and Beach never missed a data collection, despite having to drive an hour to and from the research site.

His work ethic and dedication were noticed by Dr. Betsy Anderson-Steeves, an assistant professor in public health nutrition at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK), and Beach helped her collect data at county fairs as part of a UTK-based project focused on nutrition, access to healthy food, health and physical activity of those living in rural Appalachia.

“I didn’t think I would be able to do research like this as an undergraduate,” Beach said. 

Transferring to MC

At that point, Beach knew he wanted to study at Maryville College. He still wanted to pursue public health, with the goal of earning a graduate degree in public health and working in the field of epidemiology. While Maryville College does not offer a public health major, Beach worked with Haydu and Steeves to tailor an exercise science major that would allow him to take the relevant classes he needed to support his research and career interests – and ultimately position himself as an ideal candidate for a graduate program in public health. He transferred to MC as a sophomore that fall.

“Public health is so broad, and so is exercise science – but there is a lot of overlap,” Beach said. “The faculty came together to help make this happen for me. I was amazed. At a large university, you might get five minutes with a professor, and at Maryville College, I hadn’t even enrolled yet, and I was working closely with and being advised by three different professors.”

After enrolling, he hit the ground running, taking a variety of classes related to his career interests, including community health, drugs and behavior, and human anatomy and physiology. He worked with Dr. Jennifer Oody, assistant professor of exercise science, as a lab assistant for her human anatomy and physiology class, and he continued to find research opportunities – some of which he presented at professional conferences.

“Colby has gone above and beyond in terms of gaining research experience,” Steeves said. “In this aspect, he is one of the hardest-working, most research-focused undergraduates I have worked with. As a result of his tenacity, he has produced a very impressive undergraduate research portfolio, having already delivered multiple poster presentations at regional conferences, receiving Senior Study grant funding, and having his research accepted for publication in a peer reviewed scientific journal.”

Beach’s observational study “The Physical Activity Patterns of Greenway Users Playing Pokémon Go: A Natural Experiment,” was published in the February 2019 issue of Games for Health Journal. For his Senior Study, he transitioned from an observational study to conducting a controlled experiment to explore the impact of playing Pokémon Go on greenway-related physical activity. 

“I got to cite myself in my own Senior Study,” Beach said. “How cool is that? No one else was doing research on the topic and coming at it with an exercise science angle, so I got the chance to research something no one else was doing. I felt like the authority on it.”

Post-graduation plans

Beach was accepted to several graduate programs, including Johns Hopkins University, George Washington University, Emory University and East Tennessee State University, and he was offered grants or scholarships to all of them. He has selected George Washington University, where he has been offered a competitive graduate assistantship.

“I chose GWU because it is the only school of public health in D.C., which means I will have less competition for amazing opportunities in the nation’s capital,” he said.

At GWU, he will pursue a Master of Public Health (MPH) in Global Health Epidemiology and Disease Control.

“I want to pursue this degree because I think it best prepares me to enter the field of epidemiology, with hopes of serving in the Center for Disease Control’s Epidemic Intelligence Service,” Beach said. “I’m hoping to be a field epidemiologist working on the worst disease outbreaks that occur around the world. With the current popularity of the anti-vaccination movement, I believe I’m really hitting a peak time to enter this field. I expect it will continue to grow as more and more people suffer the consequences of not vaccinating their children.”

Haydu, who served as his academic advisor, said that since his arrival at MC, Beach has “continued to impress us each year with his intellect, leadership skills and work ethic.”

“As his advisor, I discussed many career paths with Colby, all of which intersected with a career related to public health,” Haydu said. “Colby spent additional time researching admission criteria for several graduate programs in public health, which helped guide our discussions during advising. Colby was always willing to challenge himself outside of the exercise science major and took upper-level courses in biology and additional health courses related to community health and the role of the environment in our health. We used the flexibility of the major and elective classes to design his program to provide a solid foundation as he prepared for a graduate program in public health. Colby took advantage of getting involved in ongoing research, and Dr. Steeves continued to mentor Colby as he worked on several research studies during his time at MC.”

Beach said Maryville College prepared him for graduate school by providing him the opportunity to receive “incredible support and mentorship” from faculty.

“Without the research experience and guidance I received at MC, this next step would not have been possible,” Beach said. “It was exactly the experience I was looking for. It’s funny – in high school, I wanted to leave Blount County so badly, but I guess I had to go away to realize it was meant to be from the start. I didn’t appreciate it until I came back.”

Maryville College is a nationally-ranked institution of higher learning and one of America’s oldest colleges. For more than 200 years, we’ve educated students to be giving citizens and gifted leaders, to study everything, so that they are prepared for anything — to address any problem, engage with any audience and launch successful careers right away. Located in Maryville, Tennessee, between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the city of Knoxville, Maryville College offers nearly 1,200  students from around the world both the beauty of a rural setting and the advantages of an urban center, as well as more than 60 majors, seven pre-professional programs and career preparation from their first day on campus to their last. Today, our 10,000 alumni are living life strong of mind and brave of heart and are prepared, in the words of our Presbyterian founder, to “do good on the largest possible scale.”