The commitment, dedication, and long hours needed to earn one master’s degree is hard enough. Imagine completing two master’s degrees simultaneously during a pandemic.

That’s the situation Emily Maher found herself in following graduation from Virginia Tech in 2019. Now, she’s set to graduate this spring with a master of arts in communication from the School of Communication and a master of public health from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.

When Maher finished her undergraduate education in multimedia journalism, it made sense for her to stay in the School of Communication to pursue the master’s degree in communication, a research-driven program that requires the writing and successful defense of a thesis.

“From the moment you are starting classes, you think about your thesis topic,” Maher said. “What are you so interested in that you’re going to research for the next year or two? That was something I had to sit with.

“Communication is such a diverse, interdisciplinary field, and I realized I could do anything and it would still relate to communication in some way. I’ve always been drawn to the health field, but never wanted to go into biology, chemistry, or any of the major science fields you think about. I thought, ‘Maybe this is my opportunity to explore that passion.’”

Maher’s communication professors, Adrienne Holz and James D. Ivory, encouraged her to explore health communication as a thesis topic — and even possibly a career.

“I wanted to find a way to bridge my communication background with public health,” Maher said.

She decided to apply for the master of public health program, but she was concerned the program wouldn’t be feasible for someone with no health background, so she began taking classes in public health.

One of those classes was with Kathy Hosig, an associate professor in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine and director of the Virginia Tech Center for Public Health Practice and Research. Maher was intrigued by Hosig’s research in the local community on opioid-use disorder, a prevalent issue in Appalachia.

One day after class, Maher approached Hosig and explained her unique position as a graduate student in communication looking for an area of focus for her thesis.

“She wanted to know more about my communication experience because she was working on a project to try to reduce the stigma of substance-use disorder and create a campaign for the New River Valley,” Maher said. “She told me, ‘Your communication background is exactly what we need. We want to build a campaign and we would love to partner with the School of Communication.’”

The rest is history. Maher joined Hosig’s research team and got to work. Initially her duties largely included conducting interviews and a qualitative analysis of those interviews; later she helped create visual messages for public service announcements.

“The way she brings her communication focus into class discussions and her unique set of interests and skills have helped show that not everyone needs to take a cookie-cutter approach,” Hosig said. “In addition, Emily is so calm, and she’s a team player who just gets it done. Whatever needs to get done, she gets it done.”

Maher’s experience and research in the public health program informed her thesis in communication. In March, she successfully defended her thesis, “Narrative Persuasion and Transportation Theory as a Stigma Reduction Method for Substance Use Disorder: A Thematic Analysis.”

“I had the pleasure of working with Emily throughout the communication program as her thesis chair,” said Holz, an associate professor in the School of Communication. “I am so proud of the hard work she did to pursue two graduate degrees simultaneously.

“I also strongly appreciate the dedication, attention, and passion she exhibited while researching a thesis topic with such important societal implications and significance to the Appalachian region. The pandemic posed additional challenges for Emily’s data collection, but she maintained a good mindset throughout the process.”

Maher’s thesis will have an impact beyond her academic career. In a future campaign, Hosig intends to use Maher’s analysis about the communication methods that would be most effective in reducing stigma toward substance-use disorder in the local community.

“The way she used the data opened my eyes,” Hosig said. “I’m hoping to continue working with her other two committee members — John Tedesco and Adrienne Holz — to develop approaches suggested by her results. Her work will live on, which is especially cool for a master’s student project.”

So what’s next for Maher? She’ll become a certified health education specialist and use the certification to apply for jobs as a health media education specialist in the hopes of returning to her home state of New York. She believes her academic programs — along with jobs and internships with Pfizer, the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, and the Schiffert Health Center — have set her up for success.

“I want to focus on stigmatized health issues, such as mental illness, obesity, and substance-use disorder,” Maher said. “When I leave Virginia Tech, I want to work on destigmatizing health issues that so many Americans face. Who better than a communication expert to create messages about how we as a society perceive health issues? 

“During the pandemic, there was so much misinformation and confusion about what was going on,” Maher added. “Where were the communicators? I see an opening; I see where I can fit.”

As Maher reflects on her time at Virginia Tech since arriving as a first-year student in 2015, she’s grateful to all the professors who guided and challenged her. And now, she feels passionate about the health communication field.

“I’m so happy I stuck it out,” Maher said. “The challenges in these programs were some of my most rewarding experiences, and I’m excited to enter a field that will allow me to help people every day.”

Written by Cory Van Dyke