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Walden Magazine // Jul 14, 2017

Lifelong Learners: Petri Dishes to Policy

How Dr. Jewel Wright jump-started her career in healthcare at science camp

Dr. Jewell Wright with colleague
Dr. Jewel Wright

She was staring at a worm and a starfish in the moment that defined Dr. Jewel Wright’s affinity for learning and healing.

“I was 10 years old, attending a summer science camp,” says the two-time Walden graduate. “One of the first things we had to do was dissect a worm and a starfish. I didn’t know if I could cut into something. The instructor said, ‘Just try to make one cut,’ and then left. By the time he returned, I’d cut that starfish into pieces.”

For Wright, that first cut left a mark: an affirmation that she wanted to learn, to dissect things, to find out what makes them work—and use that knowledge to help others.

She hasn’t stopped dissecting and examining science since.

Throughout the past decade, Wright has followed an intersecting educational and professional path that has touched both the practical and policy sides of healthcare. Her journey began in earnest when she worked in a molecular biology laboratory at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) every summer while pursuing a bachelor’s in biological sciences from Rutgers University. From there, she would earn a master’s in biology from Georgia State.

“I kept learning because I knew what I was interested in,” Wright says. “But I wanted to see where I could apply it.”

As a research assistant at Howard University, her work focused on the neurochemical effects of stimulant exposure on rodents. Then at a private institute, she conducted research on key agricultural diseases.

After spending years in a lab coat, Wright realized there was a disconnect between the public’s understanding of discoveries generated during research in the laboratory and how that science is applied to everyday health issues.

“I saw a lot of great things done in the lab,” she says. “I wanted to help others understand how that work relates to policy. The more you get into science, the more you see how it overlaps with healthcare policy.”

True to her nature, Wright wanted to learn more. She enrolled at Walden for a Master of Public Health. After graduating in 2008, she got her first taste of policy work as an agriculture specialist with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. She liked it, but she still had a thirst for more.

So she returned to Walden, this time earning a PhD in Public Health with a specialization in epidemiology in 2013. During her studies, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) hired her, and she has since worked her way up through several policy-related positions.

“Walden was a great option for me,” she says. “I wanted to continue working, but I wanted to continue learning, too.”

Today, Wright is a public health analyst in the Bureau of Primary Health Care, one of five bureaus within the Health Resources and Services Administration, an agency of the HHS. Her responsibilities include monitoring federally qualified health centers to ensure compliance requirements.

She still thinks about the starfish and the worm as a measure of how far she’s come in her desire to learn and have a positive impact in healthcare.

“I sometimes look back on the lab work and research I was involved with earlier in my career,” she says. “It was interesting and exciting. But this is the next step. Working with healthcare policy is where a lot of positive public health change occurs. I want to continue to be a part of that.”