Chandni Shahdev studied to become a dentist in Karachi, Pakistan, and then worked for a hospital there.
She also worked with patients with special needs or diabetes. The more she learned about people’s lack of access to dental care or treatment for other medical conditions, the more interested she became in community-based solutions. So she applied to public health master’s programs at universities in Pakistan and the United States – and chose UMass Lowell.
“UMass Lowell stood out,” she says. “I was really impressed by the research the faculty were doing.”
Once she began her studies here, Shahdev joined in that research for her two required practicums. First, she worked on the Age-Friendly Community Initiative in Lawrence, Mass., with Sabrina Noel, assistant professor of Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences, for five months.
Next, she worked with Prof. Laura Punnett at the Center for the Promotion of Health in the New England Workplace (CPH-NEW), where researchers study occupational health and safety, from decreasing emotional stress among correctional workers to preventing physical injuries.
When Shahdev completed the practicum, CPH-NEW hired her as a research assistant. She calls the experience “huge and life-changing.”
“I learned a lot from them. I can’t express enough how much I loved my team, I loved my work there and I loved my projects,” she says.
She analyzed worker compensation claims and other data about worker injuries and costs for the Massachusetts cities of Worcester, Holyoke, Taunton and Chelsea. She also helped with collecting hundreds of worker surveys.
Those experiences helped her get a job as an occupational epidemiologist working for the CDC Foundation, just three months after earning her degree with a focus on epidemiology.
Shahdev is part of a team that works with large employers to prevent and contain the spread of COVID-19. The team works with big box stores, grocery stores, restaurants and fitness centers – places with a lot of foot traffic and a high risk of infectious spread – to identify their particular risk factors and help them to keep their workers, customers and communities safe in accordance with CDC and local health guidelines.
“We’re all working on cases and finding clusters. And whenever we find a cluster, we reach out to the employer to make sure that sick employees are staying at home and isolating,” she says. “I have never worked in a public health role, so working at the CDC is really great experience for me.”
Shahdev hopes to remain in the United States and earn a Ph.D. in epidemiology so that she can do research and help craft strategies to tackle new diseases.
“In the United States, there’s a lot of community health and community work going on,” she says. “And I would love to work with the diversity here. In Karachi, I had one or two best friends, but here, I have a lot of friends from everywhere: American, Chinese and from India.”
She says her parents and extended family have been supportive, even as her goals have evolved.
“My mom and dad sent me here to live my dreams,” she says. “Whatever I am is because of my family, and I owe them a lot.”