Alumni Spotlight: Chrystal Okonta
HBS alum, Chrystal Okonta, MSPH '19, reflects on fostering health equity, building an effective health communication campaign, and addressing food safety in her role at the USDA during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hometown: Toledo, Ohio
Graduation Year: 2019
Program: MSPH in Health Education & Health Communication
Fun Fact: I am obsessed with Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams!
What first inspired your interest in public health?
I started out in undergrad as a biology major and pretty quickly learned that I did not want to be a doctor or researcher in the lab like most other biology majors.
My lightbulb moment of realizing public health is what I wanted to do came after taking a course that was cross-listed in Women and Gender Studies called The AIDS Epidemic. It took both the science and “people” sides of health and combined them in a way that really struck my fancy.
How did you find your way to HBS?
After I graduated from my alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis, in 2010, I taught health for two years at a high school in Cleveland, Ohio.
It was more of a health coordinator position. I focused on nutrition, fitness, and mental resilience, rather than the traditional sex ed that you think of in health classes.
It was a great learning experience to see public health in that setting, but I got a little burned out. I then transitioned into a communications role in the Admissions Office of my alma mater, where I stayed for about five years before I finally got the itch to go back to grad school.
I always knew I wanted to go back to school to get a public health degree, and I was looking exclusively at health communication programs. The one at Hopkins is exceptional and was everything that I was looking for in a program.
So many others focused more on a topic or subject area, whereas I was focused on the application of the knowledge. I see myself as a person who thinks that skills in health education and health communication can be applied to any health topic, and I want to be able to be that person who can apply them.
When looking back at your time with HBS, what experiences stand out?
The experience was really intensive and directly focused on what I wanted to do in the future.
I think one of the first classes I took, Program Planning for Health Behavior Change, with Dr. Vanya Jones was incredible. She was my advisor. She’s the person I want to be when I grow up. It was an absolute pleasure to see her in the classroom environment, really feel engaged, and get a broader sense of what behavior change components really look like.
I think the course that gave me a better sense of what my day-to-day would look like was Health Communication Programs with Dr. Doug Storey. Seeing what an actual health communication campaign takes was huge. It was a really challenging course that lasted two full terms. I feel like it broke me at some points, but it was honestly an amazing learning experience.
How did land your role at the USDA?
For the MSPH program, you do your coursework and then you do your practicum full time to complete the degree. I was searching for a full-time, immersive practicum placement. A priority for me was being fairly compensated for my work. It had also been a goal of mine to work for the federal government.
This position was the right position at the right time. Not only was it a fully funded full-time experience, but it was definitely a great opportunity to learn and to take on a lot of responsibility very quickly.
The initial role was a student trainee position, designed for students who are still in school. Once I officially had the degree, I could convert to a full-time employee and apply for a more specific role. I did my practicum field placement at the USDA and stayed. It’s been a little over two years.
What is your current role at the USDA?
My official title is Technical Information Specialist at the USDA. My role is housed within the Food Safety and Inspection Service, which is the agency focused on food safety, particularly for meat and poultry products.
When people have absolutely no idea what my official title means though, "food safety specialist" seems to sum it up.
It’s funny to me that my field placement ended up being in food safety because it really wasn’t what I intended to end up working in. Still, a lot of my work thus far has been food-related.
When I think about health, I really focus on the day-to-day experiences, things that people can do every single day to help to improve their general well-being. I think a lot of that work surrounds the things that people eat.
What does a typical day in your role look like?
One of my primary roles is to answer questions we receive through the USDA’s hotline. People can call us, chat us, email us, and ask their questions about food safety. It can be anything, from “I left my groceries in my car overnight. Are they still going to be safe?” to “I found a piece of metal in my turkey burgers. What do I do?”
It’s a really great opportunity to directly work with consumers and give them advice on what is safe and what they can do to prevent foodborne illness.
Our office is also doing a lot of research related to consumer food handling behavior. I’m helping to facilitate a multi-year research project that really focuses on what consumers are doing in their homes that could cause foodborne illness. Our research involves observations in a test kitchen, focus groups around specific topics, surveys, and interviews, which give us a better view of what food safety actually looks like and how our messages in our office can create behavior change.
We also do a lot of writing. We write press releases, blogs, talking points for interviews. We do interviews with media – print, digital, broadcast media, to get the word out so that people are thinking about food safety in their everyday lives.
We do different seasonal campaigns to improve food safety. Right now, we’re talking about back-to-school food safety and how to pack a safe lunch for your kids or if they’re at home, how to make sure they’re preparing their food safely.
How has COVID-19 impacted your work?
During the COVID age, we’ve worked with partners at FDA and CDC to develop new guidelines on how people are handling their food due to COVID. A big question early in the pandemic was if it was safe to touch food or food packaging.
However, we have some standard, core messages that are always the same. We always talk about the four steps of food safety: clean, separate, cook, and chill. The difference is that now people are really paying attention.
How have you applied your HBS training in your position?
I think the specific health education and health communication classes that I took were really helpful in thinking about who your audience is, what they need to hear, and how you can make your messages effective.
I think one of the biggest challenges for an issue like food safety is that people tend not to care until it’s a problem. Our goal is getting people to care even when it’s not a problem, especially because messages don’t really change that often. We’re always thinking a lot about how we can make our messaging new and catchy and resonate with people.
Our agency also thinks a lot about how we can tweak our messaging to reach who is most vulnerable to foodborne illness. When you look at the populations who are most at risk for foodborne illness, it follows the same lines of people who are at risk for other things. It’s older adults, small children, pregnant women, people at higher risk of diabetes and cancer, which disproportionately affect people of color and lower-income people.
Health equity was a huge part of every class I took, especially in HBS. How are we addressing the needs of the most vulnerable? I always keep that frame in mind.
What advice do you have for new public health students?
It’s better when you’re all in it together. My cohort was really close. Being able to bond with your cohort and connect with people you’re going to school with is really important.
I think impostor syndrome, especially for women and people of color, is so common. I definitely had it. At the end of the day, having someone remind you that you’re killing it was huge.
I think that’s why I liked the program so much. It felt like everyone in the department was honestly on your side and wanted you to succeed and wanted you to thrive. When you weren’t doing maybe the best that you could, someone was always there to support you and lift you up. That’s the HBS way.
Note: As of publication, Okonta has taken a new position as a health communications consultant at The Glover Park Group in Washington, DC.
This interview has been edited and compressed.