By Katrice L. Mines
Shakia Smith, a chemist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is passionate about investigating preventative methods to treat and cure the HIV/AIDS pandemic by utilizing epidemiology and surveillance. Currently pursuing a master’s degree at Georgia State University, she is working on a thesis titled, “Awareness and Use of Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis among Black Men Who Have Sex with Men in the United States.” With more than four years of scientific research experience, Smith has also conducted analyses of individual and population exposures to the chemicals in tobacco products. Her efforts have been focused on the public health outcomes of smoking because of the numerous health risks associated with tobacco exposure. Ultimately, she is aiming for a career as an epidemiologist, public health analyst, or public health advisor at the Centers for Disease Control, and to own a clothing boutique. In April, she began a new role as a post market surveillance specialist in Warsaw, Ind.
AT: What is the most unexpected reality of your job?
Smith: The most unexpected reality of my job is the fact that millions of individuals worldwide still continue to use tobacco products despite the staggering statistics illustrating the harmful public health effects created by using these products. Once addiction is established, it is a difficult habit to break.
AT: Tell me about a time when you almost gave up, how that impacted you and what you did instead.
Smith: Research is a very rewarding field; however, it comes with a cost. Before you can even start a research project, literature searches are conducted to determine what research has already been done on a certain topic. Your goal is to find a gap in the literature which will leave the door open for a researcher to embark on a new exploratory journey. Once a gap is found, one must look for similar studies done on the same subject matter. Often times, there may be little information on the research that you want to conduct. This can be discouraging, so you can do one of two things: start completely over with a new topic or persevere until you find the information that you need for your research. I’m currently dealing with this situation right now as I write my thesis for graduate school. The odds are against me because my research is innovative. However, I won’t give up because I’m on the verge of a breakthrough. Instances like these teach you how to be humble and to appreciate the struggle. More than anything, it motivates me.
AT: Did you always know you wanted to be a chemist? What inspired this career path for you?
Smith: Initially, when I attended Georgia Southern University, I wanted to be a pharmacist. However, one semester into my freshman year, I became fascinated with research. I developed a passion for curing and preventing HIV/AIDS, so that sparked my interest in being a scientist. However, by working in public health for over three years now, I know that there is more than one way to prevent HIV/AIDS, and it doesn’t require me to work in a lab for the rest of my life. Prevention is the key to stopping this disease from spreading all around the globe.
AT: What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning?
Smith: God motivates me to get up in the morning. We take the simple things for granted: being able to see, hear, walk, run, taste, feel, etc. It could all be gone just like that. I’m just grateful that God even gives me the opportunity to get out of bed. Aside from God, my 6-year-old niece motivates. I am a role model for her and other little black girls. God has ordained us to more than what the world expects us to become, so I work hard everyday to set an example for my niece.
AT: If I came back to check in with you a year from now and you were celebrating a what a great 12 months it’s been, what did you achieve?
Smith: Within 12 months, I would have received a promotion at work, finished my master’s degree, and I would be writing a business plan for my clothing boutique. AT