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Nelson alters direction, to study public health at Tufts

Barry McNamara
MONMOUTH, Ill. – A biology major with a minor in chemistry, May graduate Ben Nelson had a decision to make as his post-Monmouth College future came into sharper focus.

That decision, fueled in some ways by the COVID-19 pandemic, will keep Nelson in the scientific realm but steer him in a different direction than the “hard sciences” he’s studied for the past four years.

Nelson has been accepted into Tufts University’s graduate program in public health, where he’ll focus on biostatistics and epidemiology, the branch of medicine that deals with the incidence, distribution and possible control of diseases and other factors relating to health.

“My grandfather worked in public health with the state of Illinois, so it’s always been in the back of my mind,” said Nelson, who spent part of his childhood in Illinois but came to Monmouth from Bedford, N.H.

Public health got pushed to the front of Nelson’s mind during the current pandemic.

“Due to the pandemic, I was at home and not lost in the magic of being on campus,” he said of the last two months of his final semester at Monmouth. “Being at home and having a lot of time to think, I really got to buckling down and deciding for sure what I wanted to do.”

Part of the magic of campus was Nelson’s involvement with the men’s fraternity Zeta Beta Tau. He held several offices in the chapter, including president, and was named the College’s 2019 Greek Man of the Year.

Completing his master’s degree will take two years, and the first semester has been moved online because of the pandemic.

“I’ve always been interested in statistics – it was my favorite part of math,” said Nelson. “The opportunity to understand and apply statistics is a good marriage for me between hard science and social science.”

At the end of two years, Nelson envisions pursuing “pharmaceutical settings, looking into how different markers affect different populations. That’s a track that I’d be interested in.”

He was asked if COVID-19 will still dominate the public health discussion in 2022.

“I would really hope not,” he replied. “It’s hard to say for sure, but I feel a strong vaccine is on the way in the next year. It’s important to stay vigilant in the meantime.”

Tufts, which is in Medford, Mass., just north of Boston, has the same small-school feel that Nelson grew accustomed to at Monmouth.

“Monmouth College prepared me very well,” he said. “I especially appreciated the small class sizes and the way professors were always available, whether it was guidance on my senior research project or just any time I needed help. I came to realize that’s the kind of situation that works best for me. I was also accepted into Boston University’s program, but it’s a bigger program, and the smaller classes at Tufts really appealed to me.”

Looking ahead, Nelson hopes to be part of the solution for issues relating to public health.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” he said. “I want to become part of the next generation of leaders in public health.”