Students Who Rocked Public Health 2021

We are delighted to bring you our annual round-up of Students Who Rocked Public Health. In the coming months, we’ll take an in-depth look at some of the projects these students are working on, so be sure to come back often!

About SWRPH 2021

As in previous years, nominees were evaluated on timeliness and urgency of the public health issue addressed, level of success achieved, overall impact of the project, and level of inclusiveness and diversity. As we enter our third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, our editors considered a range of student projects both focused on pandemic efforts as well as ongoing public health challenges that must also be addressed. This year, they selected students whose projects reflected the necessary balancing act facing public health professionals in 2021 and going forward, including vaccinating young adults and at-risk communities against COVID-19, building data dashboards for sexually transmitted infections, better understanding vaccine hesitancy among vulnerable populations, providing burn care services to children, developing effective communications to address ACEs, improving health care access for Afghan refugees, mitigating water contaminants and advocating for environmental justice, and studying the quality of resilience among cancer patients and caregivers.

Honorable mentions include projects reporting COVID-19 surveillance testing, researching HIV prevention, examining the relationship between skin pigmentation and pulse oximeters, and educating on substance use.

“These students and many others like them have been an incredible asset during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Justin B. Moore, PhD, Associate Editor of the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice. “And at the same time, they have contributed to the needs presented by ongoing public health threats. It’s inspiring to see so much talent stepping up at such a critical time.”

Students Who Rocked Public Health 2021

Please help us congratulate the following Students Who Rocked Public Health in 2021 (appearing alphabetically by last name):


Mathew Alexander is a third-year medical student at Virginia Commonwealth University.

From March through June 2021, Mathew interned directly under Virginia’s COVID-19 Vaccine Czar, Dr. Danny Avula. He served in an advisory role, identifying best practices and strategies to vaccinate hard-to-reach populations including young adults, racial/ethnic minorities, law enforcement, and faith communities. Building on his op-ed in CNN in which he highlighted lagging vaccination rates among Gen-Z adults and the lack of COVID-related messaging targeting them, Matt led discussions on addressing vaccine hesitancy in this population. His advocacy and research ultimately led the state to conduct focused outreach to young Virginians, including a targeted statewide social media campaign. Matt’s work has had a significant impact. During his time at Virginia’s Department of Health, Virginia met President Biden’s 70% vaccination goal two weeks before the July 4th deadline. And his commitment to vaccinating younger Virginians has paid off — Virginia ranks in the top 12 states for adults aged 18-64 and top 10 for ages 12-17. 2021 centered around vaccinating the world against COVID-19, and Matt stepped up to address this pressing public health issue. This project on vaccinating young adults in Virginia is simply Matt’s latest contribution to advancing population health, adding to his work as one of three researchers tracking the US COVID-19 response for the World Health Organization and his advocacy on health care issues through op-eds in national media outlets.


Bahareh Ansari is a PhD student in Information Science at University at Albany.

Bahareh’s three-article dissertation applies a user-centered design framework to accomplish three aims that will ultimately culminate in the delivery of a prototype STI data dashboard to the New York State Department of Health AIDS Institute, which intends to leverage her prototype for their planned STI data dashboard. In her first paper, she systematically investigates usability problems of US state data dashboards for STIs by having experts do a rigorous heuristic evaluation. In her second paper, she recruited 20 members of the AIDS Institute’s HIV/AIDS Advisory Board to participate in interactive paired user feedback sessions. She is now integrating stakeholders’ feedback and the core principles for usable data dashboards to develop a prototype STI data dashboard using R and Tableau software. After integrating the feedback, she will deliver the prototype dashboard to the AIDS Institute to implement on the state health department’s webpage.

In her work, Bahareh aims to contribute directly to practice through the delivery of her prototype dashboard and share findings from end-users. She also aims to contribute to the literature more broadly by developing a set of principles for public health data dashboards. Her architecture can serve as a template for other public health data dashboards. 


Ore Arowojolu is an MPH student in Health Care Management at Yale University School of Public Health. Before Yale, he earned his medical degree from University of Ibadan, Nigeria, in 2019.

Ore’s research into the outcomes of child and adolescent burn victims in sub-Saharan Africa revealed that these children return to school much later than their counterparts in developed countries, with many of them dropping out altogether and unable to return to their previous levels of functioning.

As a result, he partnered with Dr. Afieharo Michael, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon to offer free burn care services to some of these victims and continues to be a staunch advocate of the creation of school re-entry programs for pediatric burn survivors across the continent. Ultimately, Ore hopes to set up a not-for-profit burn center in Nigeria that will provide high-quality burn care to pediatric patients free of charge.


Rachael Jameson is a second year MPH Student on the Health Policy track at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

Last summer, Rachael conducted her practicum with the Tennessee Department of Health in the Office of Strategic Initiatives. Her goal was to develop resources to assist Tennessee County Health Councils (CHC) as they create action plans for their shared community priorities. Many CHCs identified Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) as a top priority of their communities. Therefore, she created a tool kit that contains the latest information and resources on ACEs, as well as worksheets that can help guide valuable conversations around ACEs and create community action plans to address them. CHCs that utilize this resource can increase awareness about and facilitate impactful actions to respond to and prevent ACEs in their local communities. 


Nazineen Kandahari and Nilufar Kayhani. Nazineen is a student in the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program and Nilufar is an undergraduate student in public health at UC Berkeley.

Nazineen and Nilufar founded Afghan Clinic, an initiative dedicated to promoting the health of the Afghan refugee people. As forcibly displaced Afghan immigrants themselves, Nazineen and Nilufar center all of their efforts on honoring the strengths and agency of the Afghan people. They have created and continue to grow a novel health education intervention for Afghan refugees. They have also conducted original research about the health care access barriers affecting Afghan refugee women so that the academic and public health communities may more equitably serve them. Learn about their work here [].


Aaron Maruzzo is an MPH student in the Environmental Health Science Department at UC Berkeley School of Public Health. In 2021, he was named a Switzer Fellow for his research and advocacy focus on a class of emerging contaminants called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are ubiquitously detected in the water supplies in Guam and Saipan, and in various environmental media and consumer products.

Prior to his studies at UC Berkeley, Aaron worked as a water lab analyst for a municipal water company serving the US territory of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, which includes the islands of Saipan, Tinian, and Rotain. While there, he assisted residents left without water and electricity in the aftermath of Typhoon Yutu. He recently completed an internship analyzing water contaminants on the Mariana Islands to help decision makers establish safe levels of contaminants in drinking water systems.  

The Switzer Fellowship supports environmental leaders for the 21st century who have the ability, determination and integrity to effect positive change. By incorporating an interdisciplinary approach, Aaron’s work aims to mitigate toxic exposures and move toward environmental justice through community-based action. 


Olivia Nathan is an online student in Ohio State University’s MPH Program for Experienced Professionals. She serves as community engagement pharmacist with Equitas Health (EH) and is one of the lead pharmacists administering COVID-19 vaccines to patients in the King Lincoln District of Columbus, Ohio.

The goal of Olivia’s work is to build vaccine confidence and increase uptake among members of racial and ethnic minority communities. As a result, she worked with community leaders and trusted members of the community to plan a series of successful vaccinations clinics across the state of Ohio, giving thousands of Ohioans access to care. The work has increased vaccine access in communities with low uptake, focusing on Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) residents from elderly to children. With community outreach and engagement, her team was able to provide accessible education and vaccinations to targeted communities.


Ruth Gaelle St. Fleur is a PhD student in Prevention Science and Community Health at the University of Miami. She is one of only a few students to advance into the program directly from an undergraduate program. 

For her dissertation, Ruth is examining how resilience can impact the quality of life and physical health of cancer survivors and their caregivers. In 2010, she and her family escaped their collapsing home in Haiti during the devastating earthquake that hit the country, leaving her family and many others homeless for period. Two years later, she moved to Hong Kong where she won a scholarship to complete high school. From there, she went on to earn a full scholarship to Brown University, and from there, straight into the doctoral program in Miami. Throughout her studies, her family has faced several other challenges back home in Haiti, including another earthquake and increasing violent crime. Her mother also developed cancer. Ruth says that her upbringing is what inspired her to measure the effects of resilience by analyzing the physical and mental health data on survivors of breast and colorectal cancer, focusing on a biomarker of inflammation that often increases with stress. People with more resilience, she learned, often respond better to cancer treatments. She is currently applying to post-doctoral programs, where she hopes to delve into how culturally informed resilience strategies could be even more effective and how discrimination can affect behavior, quality of life, and immune system function in cancer survivors, particularly among minority communities. 


Denise St. Jean and Chioma Woko are PhD candidates at UNC Chapel Hill, Gillings School of Global Public Health, and the University of Pennsylvania, Annenberg School for Communication, respectively.

Both are recipients of the RWJF Health Policy Research Scholars fellowship. In 2021, through the fellowship, the two were awarded a competitive grant to address COVID-19 and anti-racism. Their project seeks to investigate COVID-19 vaccine confidence and worker safety among Black public transit workers in the United States. Denise and Chioma pursued this topic due to the lack of prioritization of these essential workers’ needs exemplified through lack of hazard pay, lack of paid time off for illness or to get vaccinated, and inadequate provision of personal protective equipment. To address this policy gap, they proposed a qualitative study with two objectives. The first is to learn about the concerns, barriers, and facilitators of COVID-19 vaccine acceptance among the workers. The second is to gain insight into their COVID-19-specific occupational health and safety challenges. The project will be ongoing until summer 2022.

Honorable Mentions

We would also like to recognize the following remarkable 2021 SWRPH Honorable Mentions:


John Angles and Meredith Barranco. John and Meredith are students in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at University at Albany.

Since fall 2020, both Meredith and John have assisted the university with the responsibility of compiling COVID-19 Surveillance testing data and generating daily reports. These reports are shared with university leadership every day to keep track of the asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection rate on campus and are used to inform risk mitigation strategies, including whether to implement surge test or “pivot” to remote instructions. Their work extended to holidays and breaks. Meredith also works on a project to estimate the prevalence and incidence of hepatitis C infection among persons who use drugs in New York State (NYS). The data from this annual surveillance study will be used by the NYS Department of Health (NYSDOH) as one of the metrics to see if they will achieve the goal of eliminating HCV from NYS. She is also currently in the process of publishing the results from the pilot study. John also works as a research assistant for the Coalition for Applied Modeling and Prevention (CAMP) that aims to develop epidemiological and economic models to predict the answers to important public health questions in collaboration with the CDC and academic partners from a half dozen other universities. The results from this grant often directly inform policies and practices developed by the CDC. John is currently working with university, NYSDOH, and CDC partners to develop a national STI aberration detection tool.


Christopher V. Balthazar and Pedro A. Serrano. Christopher is a PhD student at National Louis University and Pedro is a DrPH student at Walden University.

Christopher and Pedro have been conducting HIV prevention research at Cook County Health since 2009. In 2021, they worked with their academic research mentors to develop new community academic HIV research partnerships in Chicago. Christopher is working with Darnell Motley, PhD, at the University of Chicago, while Pedro is working with Gregory Phillips II, PhD, at Northwestern University. Mr. Balthazar and Dr. Motley are training a cohort of Black sexual and gender minority youth in community-based participatory research methods. Mr. Serrano and Dr. Phillips are collaborating with local Latinx HIV health workers to examine HIV-related health disparities in Latinx communities, increase the capacity of community-based organizations to engage in research, and to develop PrEP promotion campaigns. These new community-academic partnerships represent a shift in conducting research on communities, to conducting community-led research to increase health equity by addressing disparities experienced by Black and Latinx communities due to HIV and COVID-19. In 2021, these partnerships successfully applied for research planning and pilot awards totaling over $300,000.00, and have planned activities for 2022.


Lily McKoy Drake is a dual-degree DO/MPH student at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and Thomas Jefferson University, Jefferson College of Population Health.

During a class project focused on compassionate and supportive ways to help those struggling with addiction, Lily and other students were trained in overdose recognition and asked to take their knowledge and train three other people. Lily, however, ran with her knowledge and trained more than 50 of her classmates. She later wrote about her experience on the school’s blog, which you can read about here:


Victor Ekuta is an MD candidate and current MIT linQ Catalyst Fellow.

Thousands of times a day doctors and nurses use pulse oximeters to noninvasively measure the percentage of oxygen in the blood and make vital treatment decisions in conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pneumonia, and now COVID-19. In a December 2020 New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) study, pulse oximeters were found to be three times more likely to lead to an incorrect clinical decision in Black patients compared to White patients, possibly due in part to skin pigmentation. In response to this data, Victor collaborated with several scientists, engineers, and fellows at MIT, Harvard, and the Veteran Affairs, among others, to propose and launch a novel research study (ongoing through the MIT linQ Catalyst Fellowship program) to determine the relationship between skin pigmentation and pulse oximeter measurements, which, if understood, could lead to improvements in the use of pulse oximetry on Black patients. To date, Victor’s project has helped to bring renewed attention to this problem and explored several potential solutions to help remedy this issue.

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