Students Who Rocked Public Health 2017

Students of Public Health: Voices & Profiles focuses on research projects and other contributions students are making to advance public health.

In 2016, we began featuring the contributions that students of public health bring to the field in our popular monthly series of the same name, culminating in December with a year-end review of eight additional students whose projects seemed both timely and important to tackling the public health challenges at that time. Zika virus was becoming a larger threat globally and in the US, and the refugee crisis in Syria had become an important issue in the 2016 US presidential election as candidates debated whether or not the US should admit tens of thousands of asylum seekers, to name only a couple of the issues confronting population health domestically and abroad.

As we look back on 2017, we are reminded perhaps most readily of the new US presidency of Donald J. Trump, and the swift efforts of the new Trump administration, backed by the GOP, to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, as well as efforts to restructure a number of federal agencies and impose spending cuts to vital public health programs, which could potentially impact women, children, minorities, and others. On top of that, 2017 brought unprecedented destruction from devastating weather events the world over. The opioid crisis received bigger headlines in 2017 if not much funding, but a number of other important issues, such as the rise of antibiotic resistant diseases, may have gone relatively unnoticed.

Also going unnoticed perhaps were the tireless efforts of public health workers everywhere, quietly pushing forward on new research and programs despite spending cuts and all else. While we could easily recognize the work of many other students who rocked public health in 2017, the three we highlight here, in no particular order, remind us as we head into the new year that while there’s much more work to be done, there is also a talented and dedicated public health workforce rising up to meet new challenges that lay ahead.

Please join us in congratulating these students for their achievements, and we invite you to leave us a comment in the section below telling us about other students who rocked public health in 2017.

1. University of Florida Student Identifies Rare Mutation 

Student: Marissa Valentine-King, MPH, RN, and PhD candidate
University of Florida (UF), Department of Environmental and Global Health

Marissa Valentine-King, PhD candidate, Environmental and Global Health, Univ of Florida

Marissa Valentine-King, MPH, RN, a PhD candidate in the Department of Environmental and Global Health at the University of Florida (UF) and her mentor, Mary B. Brown, PhD, a Professor in the UF College of Veterinary Medicine, identified a rare mutation that causes levofloxacin resistance in a urinary Ureaplasma parvum isolate. The isolate was from a woman with a first-time urinary tract infection (UTI). This is the first report of this mutation in the US and was identified only twice previously in Asia. This finding was part of a study investigating antibiotic resistance profiles and prevalence in Ureaplasma species isolated from college-aged women with first-time UTI. As antibiotic resistance profiles vary on a regional scale, and most clinical laboratories do not have the capacity to culture fastidious organisms like Ureaplasma species, this study provides useful information for clinicians in refining their treatment selection by avoiding drugs that show high resistance levels. This work was recently published in the October edition of Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy.

Valentine-King has roots in the clinical environment, where she worked as a Registered Nurse for five years before pursuing a Master of Public Health at UF.


“In the clinical environment, I often had patients with infections from antibiotic resistant organisms and wanted to conduct research to better understand their epidemiology and resistance mechanisms, to ultimately reduce the disease burden from these organisms. Working in Dr. Brown’s Mycoplasma Laboratory has given me the opportunity to conduct this research I am passionate about, for which I am very grateful.”

Marissa Valentine-King, MPH, RN, PhD candidate

The next steps in Valentine-King’s research involve a multi-disciplinary project between the Huigens and James laboratories in the UF College of Pharmacy. This collaborative effort involves using these same clinical Ureaplasma species isolates and human and animal mycoplasma pathogens to evaluate the efficacy of newly synthesized antimicrobial compounds from the Huigens Lab. Using the effective compounds, Katherine Cisneros of the James Lab will evaluate the compounds for evidence of potential endocrine disruption, altogether providing both efficacy and pre-clinical health information. This work is funded by a NIH TL-1 pre-doctoral fellowship awarded to both Valentine-King and Cisneros through the UF Clinical and Translational Science Institute.

In regard to advice for public health students, Valentine-King comments: “Just follow your passion and curiosity, and with a lot of hard work and troubleshooting, success will follow. Also, always keep an open mind with respect to collaborations, as they provide insight into a problem from another angle and may lead to new findings that can impact human health!”

2. Doctoral Candidate at Gillings School of Global Public Health Investigates Health Risks of Private Wells

Student: Frank Stillo, MSPH, and doctoral candidate
School: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Gillings School of Global Public Health 

Frank Stillo, MSPH, a doctoral candidate in the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Frank Stillo, MSPH, a doctoral candidate in the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is studying disparities in drinking water quality in African American communities on the fringes of North Carolina cities and towns. Prior research had documented that in some areas of the South, African American communities in peri-urban areas were historically excluded from municipal services, including water and sewer service. These communities rely on private wells and septic systems for their water and sanitation, despite their close proximity to municipal water and sewer pipes. Prior to Mr. Stillo’s research, the effects of these disparities in infrastructure access on drinking water quality were not well studied. Mr. Stillo, in collaboration with his advisor, Dr. Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson, Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, recruited households in affected communities for tap water sampling. In one study, he tested tap water samples from 57 households for microbial contaminants, and in a second study, he tested tap water in 29 homes for lead. In the first study, he found that 65% of the homes tested positive for at least one bacterial contaminant. In the second, he found that 24% of homes had lead concentrations above the 15-ppb health-based action level established by the US Environmental Protection Agency—a prevalence similar to that observed in Flint during the recent water crisis. His research connected bacterial contamination to elevated risks of emergency department visits for acute gastrointestinal illness and lead to a risk of elevated blood lead in children. In interviews with households in affected communities, Mr. Stillo and fellow student Chelsea Fizer, MSPH, found that few households had previously tested their water, so most were unaware of the potential contamination risk. Currently, he is working with Dr. Wandi Bruine de Bruin, Professor with University Leadership Chair in Behavioral Decision Making at Leeds University, to identify the factors that most influence decisions to test well water and to use this information to design a risk communication to promote well water testing.

“It was astonishing to me, after growing up with a private well, to find elevated lead levels in over 24% of the samples I analyzed. Knowing that most people have older houses with lead-bearing plumbing that could leach lead into their water—yet are unaware of the risk because they don’t test their water—motivates me to continue this work.”

3. UTHealth SEIS Students Respond to Hurricane Harvey

Student: Lauren Leining
School: UTHealth Science Center at Houston, School of Public Health

Lauren Leining, MPH student studying Epidemiology and Global Health at UTHealth Science Center, School of Public Health

When Hurricane Harvey arrived in Houston, the Student Epidemic Intelligence Society (SEIS), led by Lauren Leining, of the UTHealth School of Public Health, was ready to respond. Leining was inspired by the organization’s prominent role exactly 12 years prior when 27,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees arrived at the Houston Astrodome. SEIS surveyed Katrina evacuees daily, successfully finding and controlling an outbreak of acute gastroenteritis.

“SEIS has an important legacy and it was my goal to bring SEIS back to its former glory,” says Leining, a second-year Masters of Public Health student studying Epidemiology with a concentration in Global Health. During Harvey, she said she reminded the local health departments of SEIS’s previous Katrina efforts and told them SEIS was “prepared to serve at any moment.”

Lauren Leining

Her first call was to Kristy O. Murray, DVM, PhD, at Baylor College of Medicine, who originally founded SEIS when she was faculty, and led the Katrina efforts in 2005.

Murray contacted the Houston Health Department and they requested SEIS’s help to survey residents at the George R. Brown Convention Center mega-shelter. Their surveillance efforts lasted a week and allowed HHD to monitor residents’ physical and mental health. Respiratory symptoms, anxiety, and depression were commonly reported. In total, 165 volunteers interviewed 4,156 shelter residents in 7 days, averaging 3 hours each night. This natural disaster led to a strengthened partnership between local public health and academic institutions, allowing for surge capacity in a time of extreme need. SEIS continues to grow under Leining as she hopes this experience can serve as a reminder to encourage greater integration of public health students as a surge-capacity resource to all county and state health departments.

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Read about the “Eight Students Who Rocked Public Health in 2016