Remember From Whence You Came

Dr. Eleanor Fleming, Lt. Commander and Dental Officer, US Public Health Service

Dr. Eleanor Fleming, Lt. Commander and Dental Officer, US Public Health Service

Dear Eleanor,

You are thirteen-years old now and will graduate from the eighth grade in May. Your grades in Literature and Vocabulary and Social Studies are quite good. These subjects come rather easily to you. But, when it comes to Math and Science, you struggle. Do not give up!! You may have to work harder and study longer, but your efforts will pay off.

Your family has overcome great odds and made many sacrifices to provide you with the opportunities that you now have. Remember from whence you came. The saying is true that we stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. Your grandmother walked to school in the segregated South and never gave up even though the odds of her success were against her. If she could make it then, certainly you can now.

The road to your success will not be paved for you. There is no GPS to guide you. You must find your own way. You must earn whatever success you obtain. You must work harder and even longer to get to where you want to go. And, when you fall and you certainly will, you must get up and try again. Remember from whence you came. Your grandmother never stopped. Your mother never stopped. Quitting is not in your DNA.

Master your algebra now; remember “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally;” and never forget those equations and formulas that may look like Greek to you now. The work that you do now will give you options for your future ahead. Your future is bright, and there is nothing that you cannot do if you work hard, embrace challenges, and never forget from whence you came. You never know: you might be the salutatorian of your high school class. Vanderbilt University Classes of 2000, 2003, 2006; Meharry Medical College Class of 2011; East Tennessee State University Class of 2015. Your academic studies may take you here…who knows where else the road may take you. One thing is clear: if you work hard, believe in yourself, and never give up, you will never fail. You can, you must, and you will!! And, here’s the secret: if you always remember from whence you came, your mama will always be proud of you too (an added benefit).

I did not set out to work in public health. I did not set out to work in a profession where I collect and analyze data, write statistical code, and focus on using my findings to improve public health practice. I never saw myself as an epidemiologist, a public health scientist…not to mention a dental officer in the United States Public Health Service. All of that was for someone else…not me. I managed to graduate with my Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science and African American Studies by testing out of college math and taking basic physics and Geology 101 to fulfil my science requirements. Science and math were not my thing.

I became an epidemiologist because a twelve year old boy died in Maryland from a toothache. Deamonte Driver is the reason I woke up at 5 am to work on my dissertation because I had classes in the evening at Nashville State Community College to complete my prerequisites for dental school. Reading that a boy, a black boy, a low-income boy died from a toothache, a preventable disease (dental caries), a treatable condition (a filling, if caught early enough or an extraction), changed my life. I could have been Deamonte Driver. I knew children like Deamonte Driver. I found myself in the world of STEM because I wanted to change the world. If Deamonte Driver died because his mother could not find a dentist who accepted Medicaid, I wanted to be the provider who would.

Once I made it to dental school and I was up to my eye balls in anatomy, physiology, and pre-clinical dentistry, I faced the grim reality that one dentist can only do the work of one dentist (or what one’s body will allow). If I wanted to impact a community, perhaps, I needed to do something other than filling and pulling teeth. I needed the community to be my patient. I needed to work in public health.

I found a great mentor who told me about a program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS). EIS is the premier applied epidemiology training program. I learned about the program in the summer, and the application was due in the fall. So, I had my work cut out for me to write and rewrite my personal statement, secure letters of recommendations, and become EIS-ready. I applied, was accepted into the program, spent two years as a disease detective learning about epidemiology, and found myself building a career as an epidemiologist.

While I did not know about epidemiology, I worked hard and applied myself earning a doctoral degree in Political Science, a dental degree, and building a skill set that I could apply to any career path. If you work hard, if you believe that you can do anything, and if you never take “no” for an answer or believe your haters, you can do anything. If the girl who did not think that math and science were “her thing” can become an epidemiologist, write SAS code, analyze data, and be accepted to one of the top public health program in the world, just imagine what awesome things you can do. You too can change the world. If I can do it, I know you can!!

Future Eleanor

P.S.for the girls of SCFG: My passion to change the world brought to the world of STEM. What does this mean for you, the members of the Science Club for Girls? At your age, you have a leg up on me. You are interested in science, participating in an amazing program, and learning about careers and opportunities that I did not learn about until…well, quiet as it’s kept, I was 30 something. You have already taken the first, big step toward your future. And, now you have to stay the course, work hard, and never give up until you make it where you want to go.

Lieutenant Commander Eleanor Fleming is a dental officer in the United States Public Health Service. She works as a dental epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A trained political scientist and dentist, she began her career in public health as a CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer (Disease Detective). She has presented her work in professional conferences and published her work in peer-reviewed journals. A proud graduate of Meharry Medical College, Dr. Fleming is committed to using her work to improve the oral health of our nation and inspire others to consider careers in dentistry and public health. Her motto is: “If I can do it, I know you can do it.”

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