Mary Ellen Hicks, MPH (MPH ’12)

Mary Ellen Hicks-small

Due to a family history of cancer, I started college at Purdue University with the intent of becoming an oncologist. I wanted to help fight the disease that had affected my family. I came to realize, however, that becoming a medical doctor wasn’t the only, or necessarily the best, way to achieve this objective. By the time patients visit an oncologist, they already have cancer. I decided instead to focus on reducing and eliminating the hazards and conditions that can lead to cancer and other environmentally triggered diseases in the first place and I pursued dual degrees in Occupational Health Science and Environmental Health Sciences.

While an undergraduate, I decided that I was interested in pursuing a graduate degree in Industrial Hygiene. After attending the University of Michigan School of Public Health (UM SPH) Recruitment Weekend, where I spent the weekend meeting professors and learning about the active student organizations and the practical hands-on approach of the program, I decided to apply for their Masters of Public Health (MPH) degree in Industrial Hygiene (IH). Despite already having a job offer from Alcoa, the company I had been interning with as an undergraduate, this experience, along with the encouragement of my Alcoa mentor, ultimately led me to decide to attend UM SPH.

While at UM SPH, I enjoyed how the courses focused on practical, real world Industrial Hygiene applications. There, I also actively participated in UM student organizations, such as the University of Michigan Industrial Hygiene Student Association (UMIHSA). During the 2nd year of my program, I served as UMIHSA’s president. This helped me acquire leadership skills and provided me with an abundance of networking opportunities. For instance, one responsibility of the UMIHSA president is to lead the Q&A session of the “Warren Cook Industrial Hygiene Discussional,” a yearly day and a half event hosted by COHSE which consists of discussions by prominent leaders in the IH field.

After graduating in 2012, I was welcomed back by Alcoa as the Industrial Hygiene Professional at their plant in Chandler, AZ. I was responsible for managing exposure assessment, hearing conservation, asbestos, respiratory protection, and radiation control programs at the site. While there I improved their exposure assessment audit score, created an updated plant-wide noise map of the facility, led the Ergonomics Team in reducing ergonomic risks, and provided training for plant leaders and employees. Then, as luck happened, an opportunity opened up with Abbott Laboratories in Casa Grande, AZ at the same time Alcoa was considering moving me to another location. So, I reached out to a few UM SPH alumni I knew through my involvement with UMIHSA who were working for Abbott. They remembered me and they put in a good word with my current manager. I am now working as an Environmental, Health and Safety Specialist at Abbott Laboratories where I am responsible for environmental programs such as hazardous waste management, recycling initiatives, air emissions and water management. I also lead ongoing industrial hygiene, ergonomic and safety improvement programs. Call it the “Michigan connection” or the “Michigan difference” – it has made it possible for me to have a career preventing workplace illness and injury, and making a difference in people’s lives.