Nick Coombs

Nick Coombs

Where is your hometown?
Whitehouse Station, New Jersey
 
What’s your education background? Degrees, Universities attended:
I earned a Master’s Degree in Statistics from the University of Vermont in 2015 and a Bachelor’s Degree in Mathematics: Statistics from Castleton State College in 2013.
 
What program are you enrolled in at UM?
As of Fall 2018, I am enrolled as a second-year PhD student in Public Health in the School of Public & Community Health Sciences at the University of Montana.
 
What brought you to Missoula?
The best way to answer this is to first address what brought me to Montana originally. After working and living in Vermont for several years, I developed an appreciation for ‘urban’ environments that are culturally defined more by their rural surroundings than the density within their city limits. Billings, Montana fit that bill, and three weeks after graduation, I moved across the country to begin my first professional role out of a research center at Montana’s largest hospital. It was there where I gained some very helpful insight into some of the unique health disparities that exist within our state, namely issues pertaining to mental health. After two years, I decided to continue my education in pursuit of a PhD and to do so in Montana, arguably the epicenter of mental health crises in the United States. The, at the time, newly accredited Public Health PhD program at the University of Montana seemed to be a perfect fit, so I moved to UM’s home in Missoula.
 
As a Ph.D. student, what is your role within the SPCHS Department? (TA/RA?) Expand as much as necessary:
My official role in the School of Public & Community Health Sciences is a Research Assistant, and my current work involves the evaluation and dissemination of alternative, adjunctive treatments for depression and suicidality across vulnerable populations in Montana.
 
How long have you been attending the University of Montana and the SPCHS?
I began enrollment in the fall of 2017, so I am currently in my second year of the program.
 
Have you been involved with any research projects associated with UM or surrounding communities? What were/are they and what faculty were you assisting?
I currently provide statistical contribution as a co-investigator to a couple grant-funded studies out of our department, one of which aims to test the efficacy of air-filtration units in reducing the risk of respiratory infections among young children (assisting Tony Ward and Curtis Noonan on the KidAir study). The second emphasizes the need for creating a deeper understanding of the psychosocial, behavioral, socioeconomic, and cultural etiological factors driving health problems for American Indian/Alaska Native communities in the Northern plains (assisting Annie Belcourt on the Harvard Fellowship).
 
What has your previous educational background done to prepare you for your current degree?
Having a background in statistics has provided me with a great deal of assistance through the hurdles of a PhD program. At one point or another, we all learn that data are everywhere, and it pays to have a comprehensive understanding and respect for what and how data behaves. To be a “PhD scientist,” one needs to be a self-sustaining researcher. In the field of public health and countless others, one needs to effectively understand study design, methodological considerations, and statistical analysis through designing and implementing a study. My advanced degree in statistics touched upon a number of these challenges.
 
Did you always know you wanted to pursue this degree? Do you remember when you were inspired to pursue furthering your education?
I have always emphasized the importance of furthering my own level of utility, which often aligns with that of higher education. Originally studying statistics, there was a specific purpose in mind: to gain proficiency and communicability in a highly technical, and fairly unpopular, field that is used interchangeably across any and all disciplines. The direction to public health stems from the understanding that statistical competency is an important piece of the puzzle, but it is only one single piece. Public health, in its broadest sense, takes a complex issue and finds a systemic approach to better address it. In fact, public health is interdisciplinary by nature, and that is a primary reason why it’s the focus point of my doctoral studies. The importance of cultural and professional humility can never be undermined.
 
If you give your 18-year-old-self one piece of advice about pursuing a college degree, what would it be? 
To stay on pace. It will all makes sense eventually. As the matter of fact, I tell myself the same thing at age 27.
 
What’s your favorite aspect of your involvement as a student (and researcher) at University of Montana?
The University of Montana is a gem in terms of opportunity. Having the focus and determination to explore a cause-based objective is something the culture at the university caters to very well. They are flexible, opportunistic, and not as limited by bureaucracy as compared to what you would find in many other high functioning academic settings.


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What is the most challenging aspect of your degree program and how do you find the positives in it?
The Public Health PhD program at the University of Montana is newly accredited, launched in 2017. I am among the first students going through this program. All new programs come with an abundance of challenges, this one being no different. Instead of having a bridge to walk across, the foundation is more or less being built as we walk on it. Being a Guinee pig, however, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I have used my unique opportunity to establish a system that works for me, as any successful PhD prepared researcher will tell you. I have the autonomy to be creative and references to some of the best mentors anyone in my position could ask for.
 
Since starting this degree program at UM, what has surprised you the most?
The level of intellectual stimulation and demand is something I cannot compare with any other experience. I was recently told by a mother and seasoned researcher that her PhD program was the most challenging feat of her life, and she had given birth on multiple occasions. She was very specific in reminding me of that last part.
 
What is the “ultimate goal” after receiving your Ph.D. from UM? What employment, types of research projects, continuing education are you looking to accomplish?
I am regularly reminded to exercise rational enthusiasm with my goals, in research and beyond. After earning my PhD, I aim to be an integral contributor in revolutionizing new, progressive approaches to better addressing the attitudes and behaviors regarding mental illness in our Western culture. I would love to lead a research division one day, in academia or out of a hospital setting.
 
When you’re not doing field work, researching, or attending classes what’s your favorite activity/hobby?
Vermont and Montana have a few geographic similarities, which hint towards what some of my favorite hobbies might be. I love the outdoors: hiking, bouldering, snowboarding, mountain biking, you name it. Once I have a large enough apartment, I’ll be able to store a kayak and some more bulky equipment to add to this list. :)
 
How have the faculty at UM, specifically SPCHS helped/supported your degree program?
The faculty in the School of Public & Community Health Sciences is made up of well-minded, established, rigorous researchers who do not bound themselves with siloes, neither within or between other departments across the university. Like a strong interdisciplinary unit, they invest a great deal of resource to support their student body at all stages. This goes for Master’s (MPH) and Certificate (CPH) students in the school as well.
 
If a prospective student asked you about your time thus far at UM, what would you say?
I wouldn’t sugar coat it. It’s a challenge, the hardest one yet. It often makes me question the very fabric of my existence, but I wouldn’t change a thing if given the opportunity. I am happy to be pursuing a PhD at the University of Montana, and I will willingly continue on this path of great resistance.
 
One piece of advice to students thinking about getting/applying to a Ph.D. program?
Don’t expect a handout or clearly marked syllabus. Life doesn’t work like that, and neither does a PhD. Be prepared to dismantle your thought process on more of your ideas than you think, and make sure your skin is thick and ability to operate with limited direction is sound. But most of all, you must have passion. People don’t get a PhD to “check off a box” or to get a pay rise. They do it because they are angry or saddened or frustrated or confused or deranged about an issue that exists in our world (there are all too many to choice from) and aim to make an impact at a higher level.