For the second year, graduating students in the Master of Public Health (MPH) program at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine competed for four seminar presentation spots to share their capstone project work. The 2017 graduating cohort, comprised of 35 students, was the program’s largest yet.
The capstone project showcases the achievements of the program’s soon-to-be graduates and demonstrates student competence in the program’s interdisciplinary One Health approach, which emphasizes the interconnectedness of human, animal, and environmental health and the interdisciplinary efforts of medical, veterinary, environmental health, and public health professionals to protect, promote, and improve health. MPH students submitted 250-word abstracts of their research and a faculty committee selected the four winners: Julia Sherry, Owen Strom, Sara Taetzsch, and Mary Gallagher.
Two of the students — Sherry and Strom — researched water infrastructure and its impact on national and global health while the other two — Taetzsch and Gallagher — looked at public health implications in Richmond, Virginia, and the New River Valley. Susan West Marmagas, MPH program director, said “These four students, and their MPH capstone projects, represent the best of our One Health-focused MPH program grounded in our mission to train public health leaders to address health challenges in Appalachia, the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and around the globe.”
Julia Sherry of Dublin, Ohio, applied health behavior theory to inform water service innovation in Tanzania. “I have been interested in safe drinking water in developing countries for a long time, and this capstone project allowed me to study challenges in long-term access to safe drinking water from a public health perspective,” explained Sherry, who also graduated with a master’s degree in geography. She spent last summer in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, working with Water Mission, a nonprofit Christian engineering organization dedicated to creating sustainable water solutions in developing countries.
Sherry explained that the project taught her that “lack of access to safe drinking water is not just a material problem, and therefore, can't be solved just through throwing money and infrastructure at the problem.” She also emphasized the importance of health behavior theory, stating that “health behavior theories teach that all health concerns, including lack of access to safe drinking water, are influenced by the social institutional, political, and environmental context.”
Owen Strom of Snoqualmie, Washington, presented his research on the impact of the water switch on Legionella pneumophila prevalence within premise plumbing in Flint, Michigan, a project completed in partnership with Virginia Tech’s Flint, Michigan Water Study team led by Marc Edwards, the Charles P. Lunsford Professor of civil and environmental engineering. Strom became interested in the research “because it provided me an ability to interact in a public health crisis while it was occurring and have my research contribute toward practical solutions and hopefully support future measures that could protect people and their health,” he explained.
The Flint water study team’s internationally recognized work exposed widespread lead-in-water contamination and was completed in collaboration with Flint residents. Strom explained that his biggest takeaway from the project was “the opportunity to visit Flint and speak with citizens about their experiences. Getting to see their living conditions and have them share their personal experiences on the effect of the water crisis was something I will always remember.”
Sara Taetzsch of Roanoke, Virginia, a 2004 graduate of the college's DVM program, examined the prevalence and public health significance of zoonotic parasites in central Virginia feral cats and highlighted the importance of collaborative efforts by veterinary and human health professionals. “I am concerned about the risk of zoonotic parasites associated with feral cats because people do not need to interact directly with infected cats to become exposed,” Taetzsch explained. “They can be infected through ingestion of food, water, or soil that was contaminated with parasites from an infected cat.” The problem, she elaborated, is best solved through a One Health approach.
Mary Gallagher of Manassas, Virginia, looked at communicable disease outbreaks in long-term care facilities in the New River Health District and offered recommendations to prevent the spread of communicable disease, such as strict hand-washing and careful food preparation. Gallagher, who became interested in the project while completing an internship at the Montgomery County Health Department in Christiansburg, “wanted an opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives.” She explained, “This project has solidified my interest and passion for helping others through health.”
In addition to the four oral presentations, 29 other MPH students displayed their research during a poster session, both held on May 10.