Gretchen Baas, PhD Candidate
From Premed to Public Health
Please note: This story mentions firearm violence and mass shootings.
Gretchen Baas (HWS '17) is currently a PhD candidate at George Mason University in Virginia studying criminology, law, and society, with a focus on gun violence. While it is a fascinating and important field, it's not where she thought she would end up. Gretchen began her academic journey as a Health and Wellbeing Sciences (HWS) major at the U of M, with the hope of eventually going to medical school.
She was on the premed track right up until her last semester, even though her advisor suspected that it might not be the perfect fit for her. Then one day a guest speaker came to one of her classes to talk about careers in preventive medicine, and Gretchen was hooked. She quickly shifted her focus to communication with a minor in public health.
A Winding Journey
Through the HWS program, Gretchen completed two internships; the first one was with the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance, where she was a communications intern. She then worked with Girls Academy, mentoring middle school girls. She was also a member of a few student groups that ran different public health campaigns around the University.
After graduation, Gretchen took two years off. She signed up with AmeriCorps for a year, then joined the Peace Corp in China teaching English at a university. There, she developed a serious infection that baffles doctors to this day. “We still, years later, don't know exactly what condition I have,” she says, “but basically I developed an autoimmune disease.”
She was sent back to the States where she re-enrolled in AmeriCorps and later earned her Master of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta. When it came time to look for a PhD program, Gretchen wanted to study the connection between firearm violence and community health. She noticed that a lot of people studying firearm violence were housed in criminology programs, so she looked into criminology degrees, which is how she ended up at George Mason.
Gretchen’s doctoral research is “at the intersection of public health and criminology in relation to violence and policing.” Her main research centers on how firearms, violence, and mass shootings impact community health, both in the short and long terms.
"Getting that wide span of knowledge really set me up to be able to accept, understand, and integrate different types of thinking.”
Gretchen is also a member of the American Society of Criminology, the American Public Health Association, the Society for Advancement of Violence and Injury Research, and the Safe States Alliance.
Three Challenges of Studying Gun Violence
Gretchen is relatively lucky in that she doesn’t encounter the same layers of bureaucracy and politics as those who work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who she came to know while at Emory.
In terms of her research, Gretchen has a bit more freedom. There are no restrictions on what she studies right now, but there are equally frustrating obstacles. For instance, she says there is a lack of information around her current specific area of focus: school shootings and their link to substance use.
“Because school shootings are rare (relative to all homicides), there are methodological limitations to understanding the impacts of them,” she says. “We use datasets previously conducted for other reasons to understand these impacts; however, following victims long-term is difficult, and researchers never want to retraumatize them.”
Another challenge is that while there have been a lot of great studies conducted, “there's just a total disconnect between the scientific community and lay people.” One of her professors said that the average person has an eighth grade health literacy rate. They have to bear this in mind when they're trying to craft public health messages or directives.
In addition, there are no agreed-upon definitions of the terms often used. The phrase “mass shooting” differs from website to website, organization to organization. Therefore, the trends of mass shootings appear differently based on the definitions used. Gretchen advises readers to make sure to look at what definitions websites or organizations use.
How the HWS Degree Prepared Her for Graduate School
A Broader Perspective
“One thing that I really liked about the program was that I could pick the classes. I had science, communication, public health classes, and getting that wide span of knowledge really set me up to be able to accept, understand, and integrate different types of thinking.”
“When you go to college you have to manage your meals, money, time. It's also when you learn to advocate for yourself. You have to learn how to communicate with others in a group or with the professor and seek out the resources that you need.” Gretchen specifically encourages students to use Career and Internships Services and the Center for Writing for support, no matter what level of degree they’re pursuing.
“I took two years off, and then I did the Peace Corp, then I got sick. It's not at all what I thought was going to happen, but I'm now in a place where I'm much happier. That was something that a lot of professors really tried to drive home, that there are going to be setbacks, but you'll make it to where you want to go if you just keep going, keep turning the pages.”
Gretchen is a recipient of a J.W. Buchta Memorial Scholarship.
All photos courtesy of Gretchen Baas, except for the candlelight vigil by David Dibert.