An Engineer Turns to Public Health


When Jessica Kratchman returned to graduate school as a George Washington University DrPH student, she felt that she was following in her grandfather’s footsteps. A GW alumnus, her grandfather worked as a geologist for many years before expanding his career and attending GW Law School. “He was a big GW fan.,” says Kratchman, who completed her master’s degree in Fire Protection Engineering at the University of Maryland in 2007, and enrolled in the DrPH program at the School of Public Health and Health Services (SPHHS) last year.

Although Kratchman is new to the field of public health, after completing her prerequisite courses she quickly acclimated to her first year at SPHHS, which focused on qualitative and quantitative methods. “I have an engineering mind, so I’ve enjoyed the challenge of opening my mind to new and different types of learning and methods,” she says. She’s also learned from fellow working professionals in the DrPH program who have taught her about their areas of expertise. “We all come from different points of view, and I think they actively seek people with different perspectives,” says Kratchman, adding: “I think that’s why I fit in well here.”

Kratchman herself brings unique expertise to the DrPH program. By day, she works for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) where she manages portions of the implementation of a nationwide effort to enhance safety at nuclear power plants in light of the lessons learned at the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident. During class presentations, she has shared with fellow students some of the engineering risk assessment techniques she uses at the NRC and explored how public health professionals could use them in health risk assessments.

Her non-traditional background has proved to be an asset in other ways as well. A World Health Organization (WHO) project was recently seeking a student who had both public health and engineering skills, and her professor contacted Kratchman about the position and encouraged her to apply.  This fall she started work on the WHO project, which will draw on all of her expertise as she works with WHO and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) staff to develop models to gauge the accuracy of food safety experts’ estimations on exposure routs of  certain food borne illnesses.

With work, school and a WHO side project, one wonders how Kratchman balances it all. Her advice is this: “If you are a working professional, make sure you’ve planned ahead and are deliberate. For me, something that’s been important has been working with professors to tailor the program to what I am interested in.” Indeed, Kratchman praises her professors’ willingness to help her customize the DrPH program to her interests. After a long day at work, followed by class, she actually ends the day feeling energized: “It’s very intellectually stimulating.  I don’t think I could do it forever, but for a few years, it’s a lot of fun.”