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First Person

Faculty, students, and alumni share stories from the frontlines of health

Interviews by Jim Duffy


Sule Calikoglu

PhD Candidate, Health Policy and Management

A Turkish student hopes to use her public health expertise to improve the way health care is delivered in her homeland.


I come from Turkmenli Koyu, in western Turkey, near Troy. It is a village of 500 people, and people there tend not to send their daughters to schools like the ones I went to. But my mother said, “If she wants to go, let her go!”

I was glad to be able to break the rules. I was 12 when I went away to school, where I learned to be a nurse. After that I went to university in Ankara to study political science and public administration. I was going to school in the day and working at night in a hospital.

That’s when I started to see how the care that people received depended on the different social classes they were from. The patients who didn’t have economic means, they’d get worse care. They’d have to wait longer to get into the hospital, and then they would be sent home from the hospital sooner. I saw this—but I couldn’t do anything, because I didn’t have enough power.

So I came to Johns Hopkins University, and I took the master’s in public policy. Now I am in the PhD program here at the School of Public Health. My interest is in health disparities and socioeconomic determinants of health.

I see myself back in Turkey in a few years, working in one of the universities and maybe working with the government to tackle the problems in the health care system.

When I go back to Turkmenli Koyu now, everyone is hoping that I will be, you know, a “big man,” helping the people of the village. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?

Ellen Silbergeld

Professor, Environmental Health Sciences

For Ellen Silbergeld, an afternoon of fishing yielded an Aha! moment that changed the course of her work in environmental risk assessment.


Baltimore is like a bowl, with four major rivers flowing through the city down to the harbor. These rivers have become almost open sewers because the old sewer lines laid along them are all cracking and leaking. Sampling has been done, looking at microorganisms in the streams, and some of these microorganisms are pathogens. Who is exposed? Fishermen.

The EPA doesn’t issue fish advisories on pathogens because people cook the fish and that takes care of it. What’s the big deal? But we started to study this, and one day I’m out fishing with two retired bus drivers, just below Lake Roland. We’d been there a couple of hours when one of my companions reaches into his pocket and takes out a sandwich, breaks it in half and offers some to me. I look over at my other friend, and he’s smoking a cigar.

All of a sudden I think, Wait a minute, this is not about consuming fish. This is about the fact that my hand has been in the water, that I’ve grabbed a catfish, taken it off the hook, put it in a bag. And now I’m going to eat something [using my hand]. This is about fish as a vector of pathogens not because they’re infected but because they’re objects.

I went back to my student, Jennifer Roberts, and said we’re going to find out what’s on the fish, not what’s in the fish. We looked at some fish wipes, and it turns out these fish are carrying—on their surfaces—all kinds of dreadful things. This is going to have an enormous impact on how we do risk assessment. No one has ever made this connection before.

I’ve fished all of my life. And whenever I tell this story people say, “Of course!” It sounds obvious. That’s why I cite this story to my students. The message is: Always be observant. Sometimes you just have to be out there to understand what’s going on.

Jeffrey Kuhlman

U.S. Navy, Physician and Resident, Occupational and Environmental Medicine

It used to be easy for Navy officers assigned to the White House to think they were out of harm’s way. Jeffrey Kuhlman found out otherwise on September 11, 2001.


I didn’t apply to be the Navy’s White House physician. Actually, I didn’t seek the job. But the Navy doesn’t want someone who wants the job, because that person might not have the right motives.

I started in January of 2001. On September 11th, the president was down in Florida. I was on duty at the White House. My job was just to get down to the secure area right away. I actually got there before the vice president did.

Right after that there were the anthrax attacks on the Senate office building. Then at the Brentwood mail facility, where the mail for the White House goes through. My job was to take care of some of the clinical aspects, treating people with cipro and with shots.

We created a crisis response network. As time went on there was a lot of thinking about different biological agents—plague, viral hemorrhagic fever, smallpox. From my vantage point I got some insights into how the experts were dealing with the practical aspects of the threats. I must say, I was underwhelmed. So that’s one reason I wanted to do an MPH: I wanted to get the tools. I thought that instead of being critical of everyone else, the thing to do was to join them and help the fight.

I’m also here at Hopkins to do a residency in occupational medicine. Occupational physicians are going to be in a great position to recognize hazards and implement prevention strategies—to secure your building, to protect your indoor air and your food supplies. You know, the government is not going to solve all of our problems. It’s going to be a matter of education. It’s going to be a matter of getting rid of complacency.

Karl Broman

Associate Professor, Biostatistics

Whether it’s practicing ballet moves or finding elusive genes, Karl Broman takes the analytical approach.


I’ll probably be dancing as long as I can stand. I started when I was 8. At the High School of the Arts in Milwaukee, I was dancing three hours a day, six days a week, plus getting up at six in the morning to lift weights. Nights and weekends I danced classical ballet at a local studio. And I performed with a modern company.

But I’m a bit too short for classical ballet; I’m five-seven. Most ballet companies look for men to be five-ten. So I went to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. That way I could keep dancing with the same groups. It helped pay my way through college.

A lot of people have asked me whether there’s any connection between the science and my dancing. I don’t know. Part of what I like about dancing is that it’s so different from science. But my approach to it is very much analytical. I really enjoy the physics of it, figuring out how to perfect a movement.

I lucked out in life. I never really set out to do statistics, much less biostatistics. But one thing  happened after another. For me, biostatistics is the most interesting and exciting part of science. It’s that last bit, after you get all the data, when you have to figure out how to answer the question you’re trying to address and you have to sort out how you understand the uncertainty in your answer.

The bulk of what I do now is gene-finding, trying to find the specific genomic regions that influence things like why certain infections kill some mice while others get sick and then get better. And I’m dancing three nights a week now, with the Baltimore Ballet. I’m just not as interesting a person without it—to others and to myself.