May 1, 2018 / Michaela Hall

Photo Essay Contest: From Athlete to IH

Editor’s note: AIHA’s IAMIH campaign encourages members to spread awareness about the industrial hygiene profession, share why they love what they do, and inspire others to enter the field. As part of the 2017 IAMIH Leadership Challenge, AIHA held a photo essay contest that asked members to describe the moment when their eyes were opened to the life-changing potential of a career in industrial hygiene. The top three entries were chosen for publication on SynergistNOW.

Below is the entry that was selected as the 1st runner up in the 2017 IAMIH Photo Essay Contest. The 2nd runner up was published in February, and the winning entry will be published by the end of the May.

Growing up, I had never heard of industrial hygiene let alone knew what an industrial hygienist did. I grew up in an “athletic family”: my father was a collegiate track and field coach, and my mother was a personal trainer and stay-at¬-home mom. When heading off to college as a two-sport student-athlete, the one thing I did know was that I wanted a career where I would make an impact—I wanted to make a difference!

This drive, and my interest in the medical field, steered me towards a career in nursing, with a goal of working in the emergency department at a level 1 trauma center. When I arrived on campus I was paired with an advisor who would play a huge role in my becoming an industrial hygienist. Each semester I needed to fill my schedule with electives, and my advisor would always suggest classes like occupational health, etiology, global disparities in public health, biosafety and bioterrorism, hazardous waste management, etc. Looking back, I’m pretty sure she saw something in me that I didn’t and was planting the seed, yet still honoring my desire to be a nurse. Each semester I looked forward to my elective classes and felt at home with the Environmental Health Sciences students and professors. The students encouraged one another, yet challenged and pushed each other to be the best they could be—something I felt the nursing department didn’t have. Needless to say, I switched my major.

It was early May heading into my senior year when I got a phone call from my advisor/professor offering me an opportunity to join her and her husband, a fellow professor, at Oak Ridge National Laboratory for the summer. As dual-certified CIH/CSPs, they would spend their summers at ORNL with their brother-in-law, also a CIH. I said yes, loaded my car with my belongings, and headed off to Tennessee. That summer opened my eyes to what it was like to be an industrial hygienist in a research and development facility, and I loved every minute of it. That summer also marked the moment where I got to work with and learn from the five most important and influential CIH’s in my life: Tracy Zontek, Burton Ogle, the late Randy Ogle, John Jankovic, and Scott Hollenbeck. These individuals have a very special place in my heart, and I feel honored to have them as teachers, mentors, colleagues, collaborators, and friends. Without them, I would have never picked this career, nor would I be where I am today.

When classes started back up I was ready to take on new challenges thanks to the support of Professor Zontek and Professor Ogle. I applied for the Jr. Commissioned Officer Student Training and Extern Program with the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service. It was spring, and my teammates and I were sitting on the track after a hard practice when I received a phone call from Captain Joselito Ignacio offering me a Jr. COSTEP appointment, one of two that would be detailed to the U.S. Coast Guard, focused solely on industrial hygiene. I jumped at the opportunity.

I was nervous but excited to move across the country to San Pedro, Calif. for the summer. That summer was a whirlwind of amazing experiences and opportunities that truly opened my eyes to all the different areas this profession can take you. This photo is of me during my Jr. COSTEP taken by my supervisor Lt. (now CDR) Lushan Hannah. We were doing sampling for hexavalent chromium at the San Diego USCG base. Hexavalent chromium is used in some of the paint for Coast Guard helicopters, and we were sampling during the grinding and painting process performed during the maintenance phase for the aircraft. This was my first time sampling for hexavalent chromium, and it was a fun-filled learning experience. We also conducted an impromptu IAQ assessment for some employees who were experiencing symptoms and had addressed concerns to us when we were on site. This is one of my all-time favorite photos. It encompasses the fun, joy, and adventure I experienced during my Jr. COSTEP, and it makes me remember why I picked the profession. When I’m having a rough day at work and feeling down, overwhelmed, lost, or frustrated, one look at this photo takes me back to the beginning. It grounds me and re-centers my perspective.

It was that Jr. COSTEP position, being away from my comfort zone, being away from my network, and being challenged on a whole new level that helped me realize that industrial hygiene was the right career for me—this was how I was going to make my impact!

Fast forward eight years, and everyone in my family knows what an industrial hygienist is. I now hand out hearing protection at my father’s track and field meets (you wouldn’t believe how many rounds those starters shoot), my younger brother is a chemist who understands the importance of R&D lab safety, and my mother is the one who’s working in the emergency department trauma center.

Take a chance. Spread the word. Make an impact. You never know: that little girl playing with sand in the long jump pit might be the next industrial hygienist.

Michaela Hall

Michaela Hall, MPH, is president of AIHA’s Tennessee Valley Local Section.


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