Students Who Rocked Public Health 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic created a “new normal” in 2020 that included controversial mitigation strategies such as masking up and staying home and became the country’s primary focus, punctuated by a summer of civil unrest, peaceful (and sometimes not so peaceful) protests, and a contentious presidential election. The student projects we’ve selected this year reflect the best of 2020 as students and other volunteers put their talents to good use helping public health conduct contact tracing, testing, and a whole range of other urgent efforts to mitigate the virus to help keep people (and their pets) safe during the pandemic; to advocate for racial and social justice; to encourage civic engagement; to capture stories of frontline workers; and to inspire hope in those feeling the weight of this difficult year. As in years past, the students highlighted here are presented in no particular order and do not represent an exhaustive list of the countless students who rocked public health in 2020. These are but a few of the remarkable scholars working to make our country and our world healthier, safer, and more just for everyone. Please help us congratulate them, and tell us about other students you know who rocked public health in 2020 in the comments below.

1. Hacking Racism in Healthcare

Student: Alejandra Silva Hernández
School: Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

Alejandra Silva Hernández

Black Tech Matters brought together a global community at the MIT Hacking Racism in Healthcare, a 2-day virtual hackathon, to shed light on a root cause of bias in healthcare. Alejandra Silva Hernández, a Master of Public Health student at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and her team were one of the winners in the Data Bias and Clinical Research and Trials track.

As a former bilingual information specialist for the National Cancer Institute Contact Center, Alejandra worked with patients who wanted to learn more about cancer clinical trials. Some patients had concerns about being a person of color and a participant in clinical trials given the dark history of research and Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities just within the last 50 years: Tuskegee Syphilis study and the forced sterilization of Puerto Rican, Native American, and Black women in the 70s, and even more recently, the forced sterilization of women of color in detention centers. Alejandra recognized that to be Black, Indigenous, or a person of color and a participant in clinical trials takes extraordinary courage.

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These violations have led to low representation of BIPOC communities in clinical trials, most saliently observed during the COVID-19 vaccine trials. For their pitch, Alejandra led an international team of five to create Empower, a company dedicated to improving the number of BIPOC participants in clinical trials. Her company aims to improve transparency of clinical trials and facilitate access due to structural racism barriers.

“As a first-generation student and an immigrant, I’ve experienced a lack of representation in various spaces, but there was no room for imposter syndrome at the hackathon 2-day event,” Alejandra said. “The MIT Hacking Racism hackathon made space for me to become a CEO, as a public health student, to create positive change for my community.”

Connect with Alejandra on LinkedIn and Instagram.

2. Using Storytelling to Inspire Others During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Student: Tariana V. Little
School: Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Tariana V. Little

In April 2020, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, public health entrepreneur Tariana V. Little and her partner Jonas Meyer “wanted to inspire positivity for ourselves and others, and we had the platform to do so.” In 2013, they cofounded EmVision Productions, a boutique media agency in Massachusetts that helps organizations convey how they are changing the world. Harnessing their Social Impact Storytelling™ framework, which Tariana honed during her Doctor of Public Health studies at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, they produced #StayHopeful, a short video series to inspire hopefulness.

Newly pregnant and masked, Tariana and Jonas interviewed 8 people across Greater Boston on reflections, motivations, and advice in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Speakers included Alister Martin, a Massachusetts General Hospital emergency room doctor who founded VOtER, an initiative to register patients to vote in between appointments; Cecilia Lizotte, whose Nigerian restaurant, Suya Joint, was feeding healthcare workers; and 12-year-old artist Sebastián Minaya-Ubiera, who advised peers to “keep going… don’t worry, do what you want, and follow your dreams.”

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“Narratives move people; numbers do not. Data can describe what people are doing and feeling, but it’s entirely different when someone tells you their experience. It’s a very human connection,” Tariana said.

“It was like a mini-counseling session,” said Jonas.

“These everyday people are doing amazing things. They can inspire us and give us something to look forward to in the face of uncertainty,” Tariana said. “We’re social beings. We hug each other, we embrace inside and out, and when we can’t physically connect in the ‘real world’, digital media can provide some human closeness.”

The #StayHopeful series has garnered press attention from Harvard and local media and was screened internationally at the American Public Health Association’s Public Health Film Festival in October 2020.

Connect with Tariana at her Website and on LinkedIn.

3. Helping Students Register to Vote During a Pandemic

Students: Lisa Chung and Nellie Garlow
School: Emory Rollins School of Public Health

Lisa Chung and Nellie Garlow are second-year epidemiology MPH students at Emory University, Rollins School of Public Health (RSPH). Together, they spent 2020 conceptualizing and leading the Rollins Election Day Initiative (REDI), a non-partisan, student-initiated organization that sees barriers to voting as a public health issue and seeks to actively address these barriers within the Rollins School of Public Health and surrounding community. This year, Lisa, Nellie and their team successfully petitioned the school’s administration to declare Election Day “Rollins Day ON.” REDI proposed that classes should be suspended on Nov. 3, 2020, to allow students, faculty, and staff at RSPH to civically engage by voting and/or volunteering in partnership with other non-partisan organizations. Nellie, Lisa, and the leadership team spent over 1,000 hours helping students register to vote, hosting educational events on the connection between public health and voting, and linking RSPH members with opportunities to engage civically with non-partisan organizations. On “Rollins Day ON,” REDI organized over 100 students from both RSPH and Emory’s School of Medicine to hand out masks, hand sanitizer, food, and water to voters at 15 polling locations across Atlanta. During 2020, REDI created opportunities for the RSPH community to exercise its collective power in voting and civic engagement and helped make voting in the Atlanta area safer for those who cast their ballot in-person during the pandemic.

“As public health professionals, we have an ethical obligation to act in the best interest of the public’s well-being, and one key way we can do this is by ensuring all people have a say in which politicians represent their health interests,” said Nellie. “When people face barriers to voting, they lose representation on key public health issues at the local, state, and national levels. I wanted Rollins to be part of the solution and thought this was something we could easily accomplish with our Election Day initiative.” 

“Civic engagement takes many forms and shapes,” said Lisa. “Voting is merely one of many powerful ways. We must ensure it continues beyond the ballot by serving and advocating for our local communities.” 

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In addition to REDI leadership, Lisa and Nellie worked alongside Dr. Jodie Guest as a part of Emory’s COVID-19 Outbreak Response Team under the Emory COVID-19 Response Collaborative with Dr. Allison Chamberlain’s leadership. Lisa, Nellie, and the team travelled across Georgia to provide COVID-19 prevention messages by partnering with school districts and COVID-19 testing to underrepresented and disproportionately affected communities. The group is also committed to build trust among the Latinx communities in Georgia in partnership with the Mexican Consulate in Atlanta.

“In public health, we work with numbers,” said Lisa. “Being a part of the Outbreak Response Team was a humble reminder of the individual faces behind the staggering COVID-19 numbers. As we continue our work in public health, it is critical to remember the individuals behind the numbers that represent our work and relentlessly fight for equity, justice, and improved health of the population.”

As an extension of her work in the Outbreak Response Team, Lisa works on COVID-19 research with Dr. Guest and aims to pursue further education to study immunization programs and vaccine safety.

Outside of her leadership in civic engagement and voting, Nellie works on HIV research and aims to pursue a career in state or local epidemiology in an infectious disease or substance use disorder field. Read “Vote Like an Epidemiologist.”

Connect with Nellie on Twitter and LinkedInConnect with Lisa on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram. Follow the RSPH Dept. of Epidemiology on Twitter and Instagram. Follow the Emory COVID-19 Response Collaborative (ECRC) on Twitter. Follow the Rollins Election Day Initiative on Twitter and Instagram.

4. Assisting Long-Term Care Facilities During the Pandemic

Students: Jaclyn Abramson, Theresa Markwalter, Hannah Reed, Sarah Work, Ella Rak
School: Virginia Tech 

Older adults living in long-term care facilities (LTCFs) have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. The communal nature of LTCFs and the population served put those living in these settings at an increased risk of infection and severe illness from COVID-19.

Virginia Tech Master of Public Health (MPH) and Virginia Medical Reserve Corps-trained students, Jaclyn Abramson, Theresa Markwalter, Hannah Reed, and Sarah Work (now an alumna) along with dual Doctor of Veterinary Medicine/MPH student Ella Rak, answered the call to assist the LTCF population during the pandemic by providing testing and other key response services.

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For many of the students, this was their first time working with LTCF residents and staff and applying certain knowledge and skills learned in the classroom to the field. MPH coursework and classes from across the university provided the skills and knowledge for the students to be successful during this experience. With expertise from MPH concentrations in infectious disease and public health education, the team was able to provide guidance on infection control and mitigation strategies in addition to testing services. The team was mentored by former Virginia Department of Health New River Health District Health Counselor, Barbie Zabielski, who served as a role model and avenue for additional learning.

Working with LTCF residents for the first time can be an overwhelming experience for individuals. Residents of LTCFs tend to have more functional limitations, including vision and hearing impairment. These experiences led the team to apply for, and successfully receive, a grant to produce clear face masks to better serve deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

“As a public health graduate student, I was eager to put my abilities and knowledge to use helping long-term care facilities,” said Theresa. “I had never worked with this population previously, but I gained such important skills from the experience. My advice to current and future public health students would be to explore aspects of public health outside of your comfort zone/previous experience. As a result of these unique experiences, I have solidified my desire to pursue a Doctorate of Public Health.”

“While this was my first time working with this particular vulnerable population,” Jaclyn said, “this experience further enhanced my future career goals of addressing health disparities in at-risk populations and infection control and prevention through community outreach. My advice to future public health students is to get involved in different opportunities. I was able to learn first-hand the difficulties faced by LTCF that were exacerbated by COVID.”

“As an aspiring physician wishing to serve vulnerable populations, responding to the COVID-19 crisis felt instinctual,” said Hannah. “The experiences that I have gained through my work with the New River Health District during the pandemic have allowed me to grow into a more competent and compassionate professional and individual, and I feel more equipped to properly mitigate future outbreaks that I will encounter in my future career.” 

“Working through my Masters of Public Health during a pandemic gave me invaluable experience working with older adults in long term care facilities,” said Sarah, “while under the mentorship of the wonderful public health leadership in the New River Health District. My time spent testing residents and staff, fit-testing staff for N-95 masks to stop the spread, and working on isolation procedures for positive residents will be with me for the rest of my life. This work taught me the only way to face public health challenges is through partnerships and cooperation among many different groups, each bringing their unique strengths and backgrounds to the project.” 

“As a veterinary student,” said Ella, “I never expected to find myself in long-term care facilities. My experience working for the New River Health District has given me confidence in my ability to create connections across sectors, while stoking my passion for addressing health disparities. Whether working with pets or people, I am proud to help make scary situations feel a little safer.” 

Connect with the Virginia Tech MPH Program on Facebook and Instagram.  Connect with Theresa Markwalter on LinkedInInstagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Connect with Jaclyn Abramson on LinkedInInstagram, and Facebook. Connect with Hannah Reed on Instagram and Facebook. Connect with Sarah Work on LinkedIn and Facebook. Connect with Ella Rak on LinkedIn and Facebook.

5. Treating and BEATING COVID-19 to Complete MPH Studies

Student: Lou Rotkowitz
School: University at Albany School of Public Health 

Lou Rotkowitz

Dr. Lou Rotkowitz is a full-time practicing emergency medicine physician working in Queens, NY. Known affectionately to his patients as Dr. Rock, Lou is also an online MPH student at the University at Albany School of Public Health. Dr. Louis Rotkowitz is an Honorary Surgeon in the New York City Police Department and serves as a Ringside Physician for the New York State Athletic Commission and a medical control physician for the New York City Fire Department.

“As a full-time emergency room physician, working in a hectic inner-city community hospital, you will face public health concerns as a daily challenge. Working together with colleagues and staff is of paramount importance for a successful workday. The challenges faced are daunting. Over a weekend or three-day period, all staff members are exhausted. The year of 2020 has been a very difficult time for all health care professionals, especially for those professionals working in New York City. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought our infrastructure and our highly motivated staff to question their endurance and ability to continually battle this deadly virus. What has become equally important with ability is the communication between staff to continuously support each other during this arduous time.”

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In the spring of 2020, Lou became infected with the coronavirus that resulted in a two-week intensive care hospital stay during which he became oxygen dependent. During this debilitating time, he says he cannot forget the unwavering support and understanding from his SUNY Albany School of Public Health classmates and his professor, Dr. Feng “Johnson” Qian. It was during this challenging year that he was a student in the Master’s of Public Health Program through SUNY Albany. The learning that occurred through this program helped him gain additional leadership skills when communicating with his staff. His team needed to understand quickly that they were facing a different health care crisis. Skills, abilities, decision making had to be adjusted to address a new ethical challenge because of this pandemic. This required very close coordination between all staff members and community hospital administrators often daily. This was essential for any single work shift to adequately provide their patients with the necessary care. Motivating members of his care team during the intense situations became a top priority decision-making technique that he had to implement without delay. All he had learned in the SUNY Albany MPH program was now being implemented in daily practical situations that were quite intense. The knowledge base he gained through the course work now existed in his professional daily executive decision making.  

Connect with Lou on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and at www.LouRotkowitzMD.com.

6. Vaccinating Pets Against Rabies During the COVID Pandemic

Student: Cynthia Mosher (MPH, ’24)
School: University at Albany School of Public Health

Cynthia Mosher

Cynthia Mosher, MS Ed, St John Fisher College, MPH student at University at Albany, in her role as Rabies Program Manager for Tompkins County Health Department in Ithaca, NY, redesigned the county rabies vaccination clinics to resemble anticipated COVID vaccination Point of Dispensing Sites (PODS) as a drive-through model. This required scouting new locations and designing an entirely new clinic layout, flow, staffing, and safety protocols.

“When it was announced, in January 2020, that a pandemic was escalating in other countries,” said Cynthia, “we had one of our well-attended, annual vaccination clinics. We always provide brochures of relevant health issues at our clinics, so we handed out ‘Cover the Cough’ and handwashing brochures at the clinic. I began planning an alternative drive-through style clinic starting in March when it became apparent we would not be able to hold May clinics. By April, I had locked in our new location and laid out the necessary plans for the new clinic. It required coordination with a variety of community partners and I could not have done it without the support of several of the town clerks in Tompkins County.”

TCAT Rabies Clinic Sign

Cynthia believes that it is important for any organ-ization to build a cooperative network among partnering agencies as well as an in-depth awareness of local community needs. When many families were experiencing economic losses and veterinary clinics were closed during the early stages of a state lockdown, many pets’ rabies vaccination certificates expired. Even when clinics reopened, finances made vaccination difficult for many families.

“Local health departments are a valuable component of community health equity. The more I work at the local level, the more potential I see for equity work.”

Connect with Cynthia on LinkedIn.

7. Capturing Stories of Frontline Healthcare Workers

Student: Brandon Adams
School: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health

Brandon Adams

Brandon Adams is a second year MPH Student under the Global Health concentration at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health. He also received his Bachelor of Science degree in Animal Science with a minor in Inequality Studies from Cornell University in 2018. This past summer he worked as a program intern for the North Carolina Institute for Public Health (NCIPH). The primary aim of the NCIPH is to promote collaborative-based solutions to population health issues within North Carolina and beyond. As a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCIPH is developing a curation project, Behind the Numbers, which focuses on the documentation and analysis of the lived experiences of frontline health care workers. The Behind the Numbers project serves to deviate from quantitative approaches and relies on qualitative techniques to effectively collect the stories and feelings from those affected by this unprecedented time.

Brandon is grateful to Dr. Suzanne Maman for giving him the opportunity to take part in this practicum, his preceptors Joe Dawson and Elizabeth Thomas, and his peers, Angela Zhang, Alpha Shrestha, & Kris Sladky, who co-collaborated on this project. Furthermore, he wants to acknowledge NC AHEC for funding staff support of the students involved in the practicum.

“What I love about this project is its emphasis on the mental health and support of our frontline workers,” said Brandon. “The world has been bombarded by an influx of COVID-19 facts, figures, and numbers; however, there is not enough attention towards the potentially permanent impact this pandemic will have on the psyche of those rigorously working to abate the virus and prevent our health care systems from collapsing. Numerical data will always be important, but if we do not capture the stories and collective feelings of those most affected, then we lose the spirit of public health: to improve the health and lives of people.”

Connect with Brandon on Facebook and Instagram.

8. Studying the Intersection of Whiteness and the Social Determinants of Health

Student: Caroline Efird
School: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health

Caroline Efird

Caroline Efird, MPH, is a doctoral student in the Department of Health Behavior at Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she studies the intersections of whiteness and the social determinants of health. At present, her interdisciplinary, qualitative research investigates how the racialized social system of whiteness influences perceptions of health for white Americans who live in rural areas. Her recent analysis of oral history interviews revealed that some rural white Americans’ color-blind beliefs and idealization of hard work prompt them to 1) ignore the experiences of people of color in their community, 2) assume that individual factors are the primary contributors to health outcomes, and 3) resist change and social programs which could promote health in their community. These beliefs, which are rooted in whiteness, could have negative health implications for white Americans and people of color. Read her article here

“In public health, we know that structural racism is a fundamental cause of health inequities in the USA,” said Caroline, “and as a white researcher I am committed to conducting anti-racist research which investigates how our racialized social system is affecting health across racial and ethnic groups. Furthermore, as someone who grew up in a rural area, I am motivated to conduct research which aims to illuminate and alleviate rural-urban health disparities.”

Connect with Caroline on Twitter and LinkedIn.

9. Improving Emergency Response in Underserved Communities

Student: Chinweoke Osigwe
School: University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine

Chinweoke Osigwe

Chinweoke “Chinwe” Osigwe, a third-year medical student at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, worked with underserved communities through her community health project titled “Help Thy Neighbor: Improving Emergency Response in Underserved Communities in Allegheny County.” Her project was originally created in response to prior research that showed how underserved communities in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, had fewer available CPR responders and Automated External Defibrillator (AED) access. Because of this need, she created a curriculum that focused on providing free CPR training and certification by partnering with neighboring organizations and developing a campaign to advocate for more AEDs in these high-risk communities. However, the events of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on black and brown communities immediately expanded the focus of her project to COVID-19 prevention. Since then she has been able to target underserved populations by partnering with a local free clinic and has been able to provide COVID-19 prevention education and connect interested individuals to educational resources. She initially struggled with connecting with her target population. She originally intended to hold virtual educational sessions; however, attendance was poor since many individuals did not have access to stable internet service or were unfamiliar with the virtual meeting software. She approached this barrier by reaching out to friends and colleagues who had similar issues, and ultimately decided to it was necessary to go into the community and employ a grass-roots approach. Since she adopted this approach, she has been more successful connecting with her target population and has been praised for her impact. Her community project has solidified her interest in complimenting in her medical career with public health. Her long-term goal is to one day become the Secretary of Health and Human Services or the Director of the Centers for Disease Control. She advices other students to follow their passions and they will not regret it.

Connect with Chinwe on Instagram and LinkedIn.

10. Impacting Disordered Eating Attitudes in College Students During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Student: Rianna Uddin
School: Florida International University at Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work

Rianna Uddin

Rianna Uddin is a Master of Science student in the Dietetics and Nutrition concentration at Florida International University at Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Nutrition Science from Florida International University. She is currently partaking in a Dietetic Internship at Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, FL, where she is gaining in-patient experience clinically assessing and treating critically ill people through nutrition.

Concurrently, she is participating in the randomized controlled trial Snackability as head of the Intervention Group. At the start of her graduate career in 2019, she received the Stempel Research Scholarship, in which she worked in conjunction with Florida International University’s Dr. Cristina Palacios on her ongoing projects. After gaining research experience, she pursued the Snackability Trial, in which Dr. Palacios’s originally developed app is used to influence and assess snacking choices made by users. Rianna chose to address Disordered Eating Attitudes due students being at higher risk due to stress and the possibility of Disordered Eat Attitudes presenting in snacking habits.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the entire study including recruitment, assessment, and all participant-research contact had to move to online platforms. Rianna transitioned all assessments to a user-friendly online database and continues to follow participants while abiding to social distancing guidelines. “College students are significantly affected by COVID-19 even if they do not catch the virus, their whole lives have been shaken up,” said Rianna. “Students are already affected by Disordered Eating Attitudes, and the stress related to the pandemic has the capability to worsen it.” She has hope that during this stressful time of the pandemic, the app can help students make healthier snacking choices and improve Disordered Eating Attitudes.

Rianna is grateful to Dr. Cristina Palacios and PhD candidate Lukkamol Prapkree for giving her the opportunity to join the Snackability Trial and her peers Jafar Ali Jafaar, Daniel Rhenals, Mohammed Baghdadi, Gabriel Corea, Niliarys Sifre, and Jordan Faith for their continued effort and collaboration on this project.

Connect with Rianna on LinkedIn.

Do you know a student who rocked public health in 2020? 

Let’s celebrate all of the students who rocked public health last year. Tell us who you’d like to recognize and why in the comments below.


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