Students Who Rocked Public Health 2018

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

students who rocked 2018

2018 may go down as one of the most tumultuous years this decade, what with the ongoing Russia investigation, the upset of the midterm elections, sexual abuse and misconduct allegations that fueled the #metoo movement, battles to control the Supreme Court, deadly attacks on reporters, troubling data breaches that put corporations in the hot seat, mass shootings at synagogues and schools that activated schoolchildren to March for their Livestrade wars with American allies and Chinese competitors alike, volatility in the stock market, family separation at the US-Mexico border, growing desire for marijuana legalization, dire and immediate effects outlined in a UN report on climate change, calamitous weather events from volcano eruptions to wildfires and floods, and much more.

One thing that continues to instill hope in these uncertain times is the irresolute spirit and innovation of public health students who see these headlines as surmountable challenges that must be faced squarely as demonstrated in the following student projects.

For the past two years, we’ve highlighted the work of students of public health in our monthly series of the same name and in two previous posts recognizing Students Who Rocked Public Health in 2016 and 2017. While we realize there are many other deserving students whose work warrants celebration (tell us who they are in the comments below!) we invite you to help us congratulate the following students, listed in no particular order, who rocked public health in 2018.

1. An “Emerging Voice for Global Health” Researches Mental Health Effects of Mass Violence in the US

Student: Salma Abdalla
School: Boston University School of Public Health

Salma Abdalla

Salma Abdalla, MPH, MBBS, a Doctor of Public Health candidate at Boston University School of Public Health was named an “Emerging Voice of 2018” in Global Health. Salma is currently researching, along her mentor Sandro Galea, the mental health effects of mass violence in the United States. They are also working on applying a population health science lens to global health scholarship. Dr. Abdalla is particularly interested in studying the role of policy in creating health, equity and population-level determinants of health, particularly gender as a determinant, in resource-limited settings.

“It was refreshing be introduced to research on the fundamental causes of health beyond the narrow point of view of individual responsibility” says Salma. “As a clinician, I witnessed firsthand the power of culture, educational and socio-economic background in determining health outcomes. You can be the best doctor in a country like Sudan, or any country for that matter, but if you are not supported by the system and if the government doesn’t invest in population-level interventions, your patients will likely die. I want to help change the system.”

Emerging Voices Debate in Liverpool

Dr. Abdalla believes that the role of scientists who are committed to creating change should extend beyond generating evidence to advocacy on behalf of their data. Her passion is fueled by her background. While she is a medical doctor by training, Salma has devoted much of her efforts over the past decade for community mobilization and advocacy on both the local and international levels. Among other efforts, she organized educational campaigns against female genital mutilation (FGM) and advocated for anti-FGM policies in Sudan. Later, as the Secretary General of the International Federation of Medical Students Association, Salma was involved in the process of identifying health-related priorities on a global scale. She grew frustrated with the lack of investment in addressing population-level determinants of health both in Sudan and globally.

“I never thought that I would be on the evidence-generating side of policy making. But I have come to realize the enormous gap between research and policy making in global health. To truly create sustainable change through global health efforts, those of us interested in advocating for a shift to focus on population-level determinants should be armed with evidence to advance our arguments.”


2. Undergrads Cultivate Seaweed to Mitigate Climate Change

Students: Eliza Harrison, Lucy Best, and Emily Kian
UNC-Chapel Hill, Environmental Sciences and Engineering

Phyta Farm

Compelled by growing food security risks, widespread estuary pollution and ocean habitat degradation, three undergraduate students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have become captivated by the potential opportunities to cultivate seaweed in temperate coastal waters. Over the course of the last eighteen months, Lucy Best (’19, Political Science and Chinese), Eliza Harrison (’19, Environmental Public Health) and Emily Kian (’20, Environmental Studies) have founded and developed Phyta – a venture that provides new strategies for seaweed cultivation to promote plastic substitutes, climate resilience, and economic development.

Lucy Best, Emily Kian, and Eliza Harrison

In essence, Phyta is crafting a protocol for carbon sequestration and agricultural pollution absorption that engages underemployed shellfish farmers in North Carolina. The business model and service protocols are designed to support economic development in coastal communities and dramatically increase the production of seaweed worldwide.

“As someone deeply committed to addressing the climate crisis,” says Eliza Harrison, “Phyta gives me hope that our global society can transition to a more sustainable future.” 

In May 2018, Phyta installed a prototypical structure in Nelson Bay of Core Sound in collaboration with Morris Family Shellfish Farms. The structure also recently withstood Hurricane Florence, which brought 80 mph winds and between 8 and 10 feet in storm surge. Especially as extreme weather events become increasingly commonplace, the structure’s ability to withstand such forces will prove critical to Phyta’s expansion efforts.

Hult Prize Finals and Awards Dinner, Sep 15, 2018, UN headquarters. (Jason DeCrow/Hult Prize Foundation via AP Images)

“Phyta redesigns traditional seaweed cultivation to mitigate climate change,” says Lucy Best. “This experience has taught me that there is immense opportunity for innovation in well-established industries.” 

Although the team has achieved a number of successes, most recently, the three were recognized as Global Finalists for the 2018 Hult Prize – an international innovation and entrepreneurship competition that offers $1 million in seed funding. While their team was not ultimately recognized as the winner of the competition, their presentation at the United Nations laid an invaluable foundation for them to continue to bring forward the venture in the months and years ahead.

“I would encourage fellow students to make connections and form partnerships across disciplines,” says Emily Kian. “The opportunities for collaboration that can then encourage innovation are endless!”


3. Grad Students Create Non-Partisan Health Policy Infographic for Georgia Voters

Students: Megan Bramlett, Seth Riggle, Julie Thompson, Shellie Bardgett, Victoria Jackson, May Dartez, Samantha Harris, and Brianna Yoder
School: University of Georgia College of Public Health

Click to download PDF

Graduate students from the University of Georgia College of Public Health created a non-partisan health policy infographic for Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial candidates. Under the direction of Dr. Grace Bagwell Adams, team leaders Megan Bramlett and Seth Riggle aimed to provide Georgia voters with fact-based, concise information regarding candidate positions on insurance coverage, rural health, the opioid epidemic, medical cannabis laws, and school safety based on candidates’ prior political actions and proposed

agenda items.

“These issues matter to people, but unfortunately we don’t always get to see how the candidates stack up side-by-side,” said Riggle. 

According to Bramlett, “Health care is complicated. We felt there was a need for concise information without any political rhetoric.”

In addition to providing unbiased, factual information, the teams wanted to create a product that was accessible to all voters. The infographic was released electronically through various social media platforms and news media outlets in an attempt to reach a wide audience of Georgia voters.




4. Doctoral Student Improves Public Policies for Diabetes Prevention in Arizona

Student: Omar A. Contreras
School: University of Arizona, Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health

Omar A. Contreras

Given the multiplicity of factors that underpin the support of public health policies, researchers must take an integrated approach to understand the data-driving decisions of legislators and policymakers. Omar A. Contreras, MPH, a Doctor of Public Health candidate in the Public Health Policy and Management Program at the University of Arizona’s Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, is helping to pave the way for new ways of capturing disease burden data aimed at improving public policies for diabetes prevention in Arizona. His dissertation, “Evidence-based Research to Inform Diabetes Prevention Policy in Arizona,” uses innovative methods to shed light on the public health issue of prediabetes from an epidemiological, economic, and legislative lens while understanding key best practices from other states in the US with successful diabetes prevention policies.

“Coming from a family with a long history of diabetes and someone who has dedicated more than 10 years to the field of diabetes prevention and control,” Mr. Contreras says, “this project is very important to me. It is with great hope that this project helps not only to inform diabetes prevention policy, but also to shape diabetes care for vulnerable communities in Arizona.”

Utilizing the Health Information Exchange (HIE), a technology platform that provides actionable clinical data for care transformation through electronic health records (EHR), Omar’s dissertation has estimated that the age-adjusted prediabetes prevalence in Arizona is 2 times more than the estimates calculated by the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS). Given that this is the first time data from the HIE has been used in Arizona for the purpose of quantifying the burden of disease, this project also elevates the HIE’s applicability as a surveillance mechanism, not only for prediabetes but for other chronic and communicable diseases of public health significance in Arizona.

Omar’s dissertation has also identified that a diabetes prevention policy in Arizona can be cost-effective and reduce health care expenditures. State-level diabetes experts, leaders, and members of the legislature (to include State Senator Heather Carter, Vice-Chair of the Senate Health Committee), have requested to utilize data from Omar’s dissertation to inform two, out of the four, policy recommendations as indicated in the Arizona House Bill 2258-Diabetes Action Plan and Report.

On top of his full-time doctoral studies, Mr. Contreras also holds a full-time position as the Director of Policy Research for the American Dental Education Association, headquartered in Washington, DC.

Omar gives many thanks to his dissertation chair, Dr. Cecilia Rosales, and committee members, Professor Leila Barraza, Drs. Kacey Ernst, Gabriel Shaibi, and Heather Carter.


5. DISSENT Poster Opens the Door for Women and Garners a Letter from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Student: Anna Hoover
School: Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health

Anna Hoover

There aren’t often opportunities to merge art and women’s rights within the public health field, so Anna Hoover was quick to leap at the chance to do so during the first annual She Opened the Door women’s conference at Columbia University. A second year masters in public health student, Anna combined her love of design and reproductive justice by creating a poster of her hero, Columbia alumnus Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for the conference’s poster contest.

Anna’s aim was to bring attention to Ginsburg’s achievements, highlighting in particular the importance of sticking to one’s moral backing when confronting challenges.

DISSENT by Anna Hoover

“I hope that my poster will help inspire others to continue working in women’s rights, and public health more broadly, despite the continued attempts of our current administration to block the field’s progress,” Anna says.

Her poster, among 9 others made by students across the various schools at Columbia, was selected to compete in the contest wherein conference attendees voted for their favorite design.

Much to her surprise, Anna won. As a reward, her poster was sent to Justice Ginsburg herself, along with a letter from Anna. As a young woman entering the difficult field of reproductive justice, Anna asked her hero for advice on how to handle the challenges to come.

Justice Ginsburg wrote back, “Stay strong and be resilient. It helps, sometimes, to be a little deaf when unkind or thoughtless words are spoken.”

Anna has since donated her artwork to a women’s art collaborative, which sells prints of the poster, contributing the proceeds to an organization that focuses on getting progressive women elected to public office.

This is a difficult time for science,” Anna says, “but we are needed now more than ever. When in doubt, remember Ginsburg’s advice: stay strong and be resilient.”


6. Yale Grad Develops Emergency Contraception App to Aid Youth in Accessing Health Services

Student: Nicole (Nico) Gusmán
School: Yale School of Public Health

Nicole (Nico) Gusmán

Recent Yale graduate Nicole Gusmán (MPH ’18) took her experience as an adolescent health educator with AmeriCorps and various California non-profits to create an app called Easy EC, an award-winning tool to help youth locate emergency contraception (EC) within the 72-hour window in which it needs to be taken. Designed primarily with teens in mind, users can confidentially answer a few simple questions and the algorithm returns options based on self-reported factors, timing, user location, state regulations, and local resources. It even includes a script for teens to use with providers, making the steps for obtaining EC more personalized and less intimidating.

Easy EC

In an interview with PHE, Gusmán explained her inspiration for developing the tool and its associated non-profit organization.  “When we’re thinking about teens, especially lower income teens, they have unique barriers and considerations: limited transportation, confidentiality, little to no disposable income, age-based discrimination. That is coupled with limited experience dealing with health institutions, insurance, and public programs on their own… and with little autonomy over their schedules.”

Gusmán designed and developed the app with her co-founder and software developer, Robert Cowell. The Easy EC team was accepted into the inaugural Accelerator at the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale in Fall 2017, and shortly after launched the Easy EC website and app in 2018. Since its launch, Easy EC has been featured by outlets such as Tech Explorist and the Yale Daily News. The website has also won a number of awards, including the Thorne Prize for Social Innovation in Health and Education.

Easy EC Example Page

For now, the alpha version of the app has been designed and tested for the areas surrounding San Rafael, California, where Gusmán formerly served as a health educator. Gusmán and Cowell are seeking 501(c)3 status for its non-profit organization, Easy EC Inc., which may allow the team to expand the tool’s coverage to other areas. “We’re excited to utilize the power of technology and ubiquity of internet access for social good,” says Gusmán.


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