Blazing a Trail of Opportunities

July 04, 2017

Jarren Santos ’17’s journey to a master of public health degree

As a high school student in Las Vegas, Jarren Santos ’17 never anticipated that he would attend college in rural Iowa. But once he arrived on campus for the Grinnell Science Project, a pre-orientation program for science students from underrepresented backgrounds, it didn’t take long for the Nevada native to feel right at home.

“On my second night of GSP, I went to the Conard Environmental Research Area with a bunch of my new classmates. As I was spending time with my peers, looking out at the stars, something just clicked. I knew that Grinnell was the right place for me.”

By the summer after his second year, Santos had declared a major in biology, joined a plethora of extracurricular activities, and completed two Mentored Advanced Projects (investigating the relationship between diet-induced obesity and food-reinforced motivation in rats) with Andrea Tracy ’99, associate professor of psychology.

While working on MAP research, Santos became frustrated with his limited statistical knowledge. “I wanted to be able to understand the analyses I was running, and I began to realize how powerful a role statistics play in so many fields, including the health professions,” he says.

Jarren Santos and other students on a fall break tour to New York City pose in front of the Wall Street bull.

Determined, Santos enrolled in statistics courses and changed his major to general science-biology, in order to enroll in more statistics and computer science coursework. He also went on a fall break trek to New York City sponsored by the Donald and Winifred Wilson Center for Innovation and Leadership. The trek featured visits to a variety of employers where Grinnell alumni work in data analysis, technology, and applications-based careers.

Santos was particularly inspired by Emily Zabor ’04 and Ann Eaton ’08, who gave a presentation on their work with big data in healthcare at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. From there, the opportunities began to pour in at a pace that Santos likens to a “rollercoaster.”

Shortly after the trek, Zabor put Santos in touch with Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s internship manager. Given his limited coursework in statistics, the manager recommended that Santos apply for the BEST (Biostatistics and Epidemiology Summer Training) Diversity Program at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. In the meantime, he completed a spring MAP under the guidance of Shonda Kuiper, professor of mathematics and statistics.

Santos’s summer at BEST was a success. In addition to conducting a research project on perceived versus actual risk of colorectal cancer, he also completed two free classes at Columbia: Introduction to Biostatistics and SAS programming.

Jarren Santos holds his laptop with digital maps appearing behind him

When Santos returned to Grinnell for his senior fall, his resume was thicker and his passion for biostatistics was stronger than ever. With help from Sarah Barks in the Center for Careers, Life, and Service and Shannon Hinsa-Leasure, associate professor of biology, he enrolled in the 4-1 Master of Public Health Cooperative Degree Program. Through this new undergrad-to-graduate program, qualifying Grinnell students may earn their MPH from the University of Iowa with just one year of additional study. Santos chose the quantitative methods track, and he will receive his degree in the summer of 2018.

As his time at Grinnell drew to a close, Santos reflected on his journey from the Grinnell Science Project to a master’s in public health: “Grinnell does a really good job of filling up this pool of opportunities that are within your reach. If you’re willing to put in the work, I don’t think there are any goals that Grinnell can’t help you achieve.”

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