Alumni Spotlight

Stempel College Ph.D. grad lands role as Director of Epidemiology at health department in West Virginia

photo of abir rahman at a desk wearing a mask
Dr. Abir Rahman in his office at the Cabell-Huntington Health Department.

In April 2021, Abir Rahman, a Ph.D. graduate from the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work at Florida International University (FIU), received news that he landed a position as the Director of Epidemiology at the Cabell-Huntington Health Department (CHHD) in West Virginia. At the time, he was a Graduate Assistant at Stempel College, working alongside public health experts like Dr. Miguel Cano on the impacts of sociocultural stressors on the health of ethnic minorities.

“I always wanted to do field epidemiology and research,” said Dr. Rahman. “This position would allow me to do both.”

Born and raised in Bangladesh, Dr. Rahman previously pursued a career in medicine, serving as a medical officer in Dhaka. “I started thinking about public health and thought that if I’m going to leave my clinical practice and start studying it, I’m going to do it in the U.S., as they have some of the best public health programs in the world,” he said. So, after applying to public health schools, he went with East Tennessee State University with an International Merit Scholarship and Graduate Tuition Scholarship to get his master’s degree in public health with a focus on epidemiology. It’s there that he opted to take it a bit further and secure a doctoral degree at Stempel College.

Today, Dr. Rahman uses the knowledge and skills he learned from his doctoral program to help respond to the current pandemic. We spoke with him to learn more about what he’s up to and what advice he’d give students.

Dr. Abir Rahman outside of the Cabell-Huntington Health Department in West Virginia.

Stempel College:  This was your first position post-graduation. What inspired you to take the jump and apply for it?

Dr. Rahman: Initially, I expected to work in the field, but this role came with more opportunities and broader responsibilities like managing a department. I am very grateful that they gave me this responsibility from the very beginning. When I joined, we were experiencing a COVID-19 surge, and lots of COVID cases were coming in. I never had the opportunity to work on case investigations while in school, but now I get to work on them in my current role.

Stempel College: What does work on a case investigation entail?

Dr. Rahman: When someone tests positive, their test result is distributed to the proper jurisdiction, for example, CHHD. At our department, we contact the person who tested posted, obtain information like their demographics, and ask questions to learn how they potentially got COVID. Case investigators gather information and determine the next steps. We answer questions, help share COVID protocol, and then help them isolate. We also instruct them on what to do if someone were to get exposed by them.

Stempel College: What else is your department working on due to the pandemic?

Dr. Rahman: We also do outbreak management and monitor disease trends. Different facilities have different definitions of what an outbreak means. For example, if one resident at a long-term care facility tests positive, we consider it an outbreak. At that point, we’d contact the facility and instruct them on how to stay safe and prevent the further spread of the infection. We also assist by coordinating and connecting them with the West Virginia Department of Health & Human Resources Health Command, who would arrange and carry the expenses of COVID testing for the facility.

One example of monitoring disease trends would be looking at COVID case age distributions. We notify changes and what can follow based on those changes to our community partners, including hospitals, educational institutions in our jurisdiction, etc., so that they can be better prepared. We also analyze to see what factors may have played roles to bring about those changes. Our health department is one of the most well-staffed and well-funded health departments in West Virginia. So, we can conduct a lot of case investigations, outbreak management, and other tasks that provide operational intelligence.

Stempel College: You jumped right into responding to the pandemic. Does your role come with other responsibilities?

Dr. Rahman: Since I took this job, case investigations and outbreak management have taken up most of my time. However, as part of my role, I’ve also been tasked with expanding the epidemiology department within the health department. So right now, I have three other epidemiologists on my team, and I also have several staff members working as case investigators and case assigners. I believe I was also hired due to my background in research. I know our department’s vision is to expand our research, so I’m looking forward to that. Right now, we are in talks with several universities regarding potential/ongoing research projects.

Stempel College: What’s been the most remarkable thing about your current position so far?

Dr. Rahman: First of all, it took some time for me to get used to hearing people call me Dr. Rahman, here in the US. There are six other directors within CHHD, and I am the youngest of them. I’d say to myself, okay, I’m working as the head of a department at the age of 34, along with others who have years of experience running their respective departments. I couldn’t believe it at first and at the same time I was thankful for getting such a great work environment. One realization was that all the hard work and support I got from my family, peers, my major professor Dr. Cano, and FIU helped me land where I am right now. I guess that was the coolest thing I felt that happened to me.

Stempel College: What advice do you have for those beginning the job search process?

Dr. Rahman: When you know that you are about to finish and have about five to six months left before graduation, start putting together your CV. Do your research on potential places you would like to apply to. Make an Excel spreadsheet and track the jobs you apply to and the outcomes. Also, do not hesitate to apply to the places that fit your criteria but are a bit higher level. Students often wonder if they’ll be able to manage positions like that, especially if they haven’t had jobs before. So, I would advise them to keep an open mind. There are opportunities everywhere.

Learn more about the School of Public Health at Florida International University