Careers in Sexual Health
Nearly concluding a busy and exciting week for the first annual Sex Week at Harvard was a panel on sexual health careers co-sponsored by the Peer Contraceptive Counselors and the Office of Career Services. Other co-sponsors included the International Women’s Rights Collective, Response Peer Counseling, ECHO Peer Counseling, Contact Peer Counseling, and SHEATH. The panel included a diverse array of experiences and opportunities for entering the field.
Lydia Shrier, a senior associate in medicine at Children’s Hospital Boston and an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, “fell into” sexual health by way of her early interest in pediatrics. After taking care of babies, Shrier became interested in adolescent health and was exposed to sexual health work. Kendra Moore, the women’s health outreach coordinator for Fenway Health, was always interested in non-profit work, especially in women’s health and LGBTQ rights. Through an AmeriCorps fellowship, Moore was introduced to sexual health. Justin Lehmiller, a social psychologist at Harvard University, described his career as “accidental, and certainly nothing my parents planned.” Having attended a small Catholic college with little exposure to such issues, Lehmiller’s eyes were opened after serving as a teaching assistant for a human sexuality course while earning his doctorate. And Karyn Evlog-Lewis, a nurse with the Massachusetts SANE program, came from law enforcement. In the course of her work, Evlog-Lewis learned about SANE and found it nicely combined her diverse interests.
“I’ve got the best job,” Shrier declared with a smile. “I get to talk about sex and drugs with students! We have fun and humorous conversations about uncomfortable topics.” Moore cherishes the one-on-one time she spends with patients. “I learn from the people I talk to every day,” she said. “I feel like I’m fighting for things that are important.” Like Moore, Evlog-Lewis values the one-on-one care of SANE nursing compared to the more impersonal task of floor nursing. “I like being able to take care of someone and feel like I’m doing something important,” she explained. And buried under a heavy – and admittedly self-imposed – workload, Lehmiller notes that “what I like is what is difficult,” yet says he still finds the motivation to get it done.
Why is sexual health important to these panelists? “Historically, women have been treated poorly in emergency rooms,” explained Evlog-Lewis. “I feel a great sense of satisfaction and hope when helping these women.” Moore observes a great deal of misinformation and shame surrounding conversations about sex, and wants to do something about it. “Sex is a part of everyone’s lives,” she said. “It’s important to make an impact and bring up the conversation among all walks of life.” Lehmiller initially became interested in sexual health because it was “fun and interesting,” but now “it’s very personally meaningful” and fulfilling to work on. And Shrier calls her a job a “real privilege,” saying that she “feels appreciated” and is able to “influence people in a tangible way.”
Did the panelists imagine they’d be where they are now while in college? “My parents picked my first major,” admitted Lehmiller with a chuckle. “I never imagined this career until I began exploring other options.” Likewise, Shrier initially focused her efforts on medical school and pediatrics. “I had no idea I’d end up here,” she said. “But after some experience with adolescent health, I realized I loved it because I could work on so many different aspects of medicine.” Evlog-Lewis earned a psychology degree because back then, the common sense was that “if you got a piece of paper, you’d get a job.” Yet she never imagined her current job, and neither did Moore. “I knew some things I wanted to do, but I wasn’t sure,” she said. “For me, it was all about different and enriching work experiences.” Certainly, she has that now.
So what advice would the panelists give to interested students? “You can go at it in any number of ways,” explained Shrier. “Decide what you’re interested in and put a path together.” Echoing the point, Moore urged the audience to “think about what skills and areas are interesting to you, and then learn as much as you can.” Lehmiller put it nicely: “what will you wake up excited to do every single day?” Answering him in the affirmative, Evlog-Lewis traced a personal history featuring several careers and ended with a simple declaration: “You have to really want to do this.” If you want it, you can do it – these panelists are living proof of this truth.
—Nicandro Iannacci, ’13