December 1, 2016
Young alumni from all eight academic units at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health prove themselves as local and global public health leaders.
Biostatistics — Abram Graham
Using biostatistics to help cure diseases
He might have been a psychologist or a mathematician – but a chance encounter on a golf course brought Abram Graham to the Gillings School’s Department of Biostatistics.
In 2010, Professor Emeritus Lawrence Kupper, PhD, was enjoying his first day of retirement with a round of golf at a local course. Graham, a club employee and rising junior, was deciding on a major.
“Why not biostatistics?” Kupper asked.
“Dr. Kupper described a blend of mathematics and problem solving (both of which I love), applied in a discipline that would allow me to make a difference in people’s lives,” Graham says.
Kupper emailed Jane Monaco, PhD, clinical associate professor and director of the biostatistics undergraduate program.
“Talking to Dr. Monaco gave me the final nudge to apply for the program,” Graham says. “She was an excellent teacher and continues to be an important mentor.”
Those two years were only the beginning.
A native Chapel Hillian, Graham hadn’t considered living or working abroad until his girlfriend (now fiancée) suggested that they both study abroad as graduate students. While earning a master’s degree in biostatistics at the University of Reading, England, he was surprised to learn that Quintiles – founded by the same Dennis Gillings, PhD, CBE, whose generous gift, with Joan Gillings, had resulted in the renaming of UNC’s public health school – also had an office in Reading. After an internship at Quintiles in Research Triangle Park, N.C., Graham worked in the Reading office.
There, one of his projects was to provide statistics for a cancer drug that proved successful. The opportunity allowed him an important perspective.
“I realized I was working with more than numbers on a computer screen,” he says. “These are real people who need a life-saving drug.”
Graham said a Gillings School bachelor’s degree gave him the tools to build a rewarding career.
“My degree taught me that I can help cure diseases by using statistics,” he says. “I attended a top-rated public health school and a biostatistics program where I was able to develop real-world experience. This has helped me land a job with a company that cares, as I do, about improving people’s health.”
Epidemiology — Brooke Hoots
Combatting HIV as an epidemiologist with the CDC
Brooke Hoots, PhD, has wanted to be a disease detective since she was in high school.
That was when she first learned about the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) program, managed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). With Rene Russo’s character in the movie “Outbreak” in mind, Hoots came to the UNC Gillings School to gain a strong methodological foundation in epidemiology.
“I should mention that I’m very grateful to the Gillings School students who did EIS work before me,” she says. “They impressed the program office so much that EIS stayed excited to see applicants from UNC’s Department of Epidemiology.”
Hoots graduated in 2011 and served as an EIS officer until 2013. After her fellowship ended, she accepted a position working on National HIV Behavioral Surveillance (NHBS) in the CDC’s Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention. In that role, she has access to large national datasets and regularly interacts with leading experts in the fields of surveillance and outbreak response.
“Our group operates the only ongoing surveillance system that provides data on three populations at high risk for HIV — men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs and high-risk heterosexuals,” Hoots explains. “As a senior epidemiologist, I analyze and publish a lot of our data and assist others with their analyses.”
Because of her EIS training, she often deploys to assist with outbreaks. In the past few years, she flew to Liberia twice to help with the Ebola response and also traveled to southern Indiana to serve as the data management leader during an outbreak of HIV.
When she is at home in Atlanta, Hoots joins her long-standing trivia team, which meets weekly at a local bar.
“We were EIS classmates together,” she says. “The players rotate often because we all travel for work, but the team has met almost every Thursday for the past five years.”
Public Health Leadership Program — Hajime Kanamori
Keeping us safe from infectious diseases
A native of Japan, Dr. Hajime Kanamori earned a certificate in field epidemiology at the Gillings School in 2011 and graduated with a master’s degree in public health leadership in 2012. While a student, he found himself unexpectedly treating survivors of a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture. He shared that experience in the fall 2012 issue of Carolina Public Health.
These days, Kanamori lives in Chapel Hill with his family (he’s proud to share that his son was born at UNC Hospitals) and works as a postdoctoral fellow in the Division of Infectious Diseases at UNC’s School of Medicine. There, he collaborates with mentors David Weber, MD, MPH, professor of epidemiology, and Bill Rutala, PhD, MPH, a Gillings School alumnus, to learn about advanced molecular techniques for studying and combating drug-resistant organisms.
“Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are a key cause of infections and outbreaks in health-care settings around the world,” Kanamori says. “We urgently need to establish prevention strategies against these pathogens.”
As Kanamori expands his research in the field of hospital epidemiology and infection control, he has implemented the relatively new technology of whole-genome sequencing to investigate new methods for combatting infections in health-care facilities.
He recently conducted epidemiological studies on infections linked to occupational blood and body fluid exposures among health-care personnel. He also has reviewed outbreaks of waterborne infections in health-care settings and identified prevention strategies and control measures for each affected water source. This research revealed surprising locations for bacteria incubation, such as no-touch electronic water faucets in bathrooms and decorative wall-mounted fountains in hallways.
When asked what comes next, Kanamori responds with one simple, powerful goal.
“I want to advance the field of infection control based on solid scientific evidence,” he says.
Health Behavior — Derrick Matthews
Improving the lives of black MSM
Since earning a doctorate in health behavior at the Gillings School in 2013, Derrick Matthews has led the life of an academic. That often involves, he says with a wry smile, “being hunched over a computer.”
Staying focused on his research has been beneficial, though.
After taking a position as a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Pittsburgh, he was invited in 2015 to join the faculty as a tenure-track assistant professor in the Department of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology.
As a postdoc – in the Department of Behavioral and Community Health Sciences – he worked on a training grant focused on HIV disparities among men who have sex with men (MSM). Specifically, his research involves black MSM, a group in which health disparity is the result of a host of social factors, including reduced access to health care and chronic exposure to racial and sexual-orientation discrimination.
The primary study in which he has been involved is Promoting Our Worth, Equality and Resilience (POWER). To collect data for that study, he attends black pride events, where he administers a health questionnaire to attendees. He also works with local agencies to obtain HIV testing for black MSM.
“This feet-on-the-ground effort has allowed us to generate the largest serial cross-sectional sample of black MSM in the U.S.,” Matthews says. “There are a number of important questions we didn’t previously have data for because our sample sizes were so small. For instance, although many HIV-positive black MSM are not receiving health care, some are – and they’re doing well and adhering to their medication regimens. We want to learn more about these two groups and determine what we can do within the community and the health-care system to get care for everyone.”
In summer 2016, during the third year of POWER’s data collection, Matthews was able to collect blood from study participants. Only a few drops can help the research team examine HIV-relevant biomarkers, such as viral suppression.
“Improving the lives of black MSM is both a personal and professional passion,” Matthews says. “The great research training I received at the Gillings School fueled that passion. Having a strong foundation allowed me to get to work right away addressing one of the most extreme health disparities we have in the U.S.”
Maternal and Child Health — Katie McMillan
Solving public health problems through technology
Even when Katie Donohue McMillan was in middle school, she was excited by deconstructing problems and finding solutions. That passion made her an amazing participant in Odyssey of the Mind, an international educational program that provides creative problem-solving opportunities for students from kindergarten through college.
As a grown-up, she still is challenged by puzzles. Now, as the innovation portfolio manager at Duke Health, she works on solving health-care and public health problems through the creative use of technology.
McMillan became involved in the mHealth movement in 2009 when innovators first considered using text messages or apps as a way to improve health. After earning a master’s degree at the Gillings School in 2013, she began working at Smashing Boxes, a software development start-up in Durham, N.C.
“I had learned about how to plan mHealth programs and develop content,” she says, “but I wanted a better understanding of what happened under the hood — how much it costs to create apps, what to consider for an optimal user experience, and how to market and launch the product. If no one is using your app or service, you haven’t made any change.”
After three years at Smashing Boxes, where she worked to develop more than 20 health-related apps, McMillan came to Duke to help accelerate their health technology strategy.
“In less than 10 years, apps have moved from being experimental to being standard business practice,” she says. “Now, we are studying how to gather better data from wearables, Bluetooth-connected devices and apps directly pulling from electronic health records – all of which will inform and improve patient care. It’s amazing how far we’ve come.”
After earning her master’s, McMillan married fellow alumnus Daniel McMillan, MD, MPH.
Nutrition — Sara Benjamin Neelon
Helping prevent childhood obesity worldwide
Sara Benjamin Neelon, PhD, MPH, RD, is a lover of all things British. Naturally, she was thrilled when – met with her husband’s reluctance to relocate overseas in 2011 – the University of Cambridge created an Honorary Senior Visiting Fellowship that allows her to spend 20 percent of her time in England. Every May and October, she visits to examine population-level influences on dietary behaviors.
During the rest of the year, she works as an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. Stateside, she studies policy and environmental approaches to obesity prevention in children and helps doctoral students in her scientific writing class prepare their first manuscripts for publication.
“Although much of my work is based in the United States, I also run studies in Mexico, Kenya and – of course – England,” Benjamin Neelon says. “The best part about my research is the opportunity to travel to so many interesting places around the world.”
Benjamin Neelon earned master’s and doctoral degrees from the Department of Nutrition at the Gillings School. After completing her studies in 2006, she accepted a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School. From 2009 to 2015, she conducted research and taught global nutrition classes at Duke University, and most recently moved to Baltimore to join the faculty at the Bloomberg School. In October 2016, she was named director of the Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion at Johns Hopkins.
In addition to her current roles as researcher, educator and administrator, Benjamin Neelon also is completing a Juris Doctor degree. She hopes studying law will make her even more competitive when it comes to obtaining funding for her research on obesity policy.
Throughout her travels and career achievements, Benjamin Neelon has an exceptional reminder of her time at the Gillings School. She met her husband, Brian Neelon (PhD, 2005), when she was a nutrition student and he was pursuing a degree in biostatistics.
“My adviser Dianne Ward hired him as a study statistician while he was a UNC Gillings student,” she says. “We extended our gratitude to Dianne with a gift at our wedding!”
Dianne Stanton Ward, EdD, is professor of nutrition at the Gillings School.
Health Policy and Management — Vann R. Newkirk II
A voice for the underserved
I already have my dream job,” says Vann Newkirk, a health policy writer at The Atlantic. “Everything else is just gravy.”
His pleasure at having had good fortune, however, reveals little about Newkirk’s approach to work and life.
Just after completing his Master of Science in Public Health degree at the Gillings School in 2012, Newkirk landed a job at the Kaiser Family Foundation, where he worked as a policy analyst. In that role, he developed expertise in using quantitative data analysis programs. He also wrote and presented reports, often about underserved communities’ barriers to health care.
“The research skills I acquired at the Gillings School were vital to my success at that job,” he says. “Statistics programs I used in conducting research, learning how to write about health policy and making effective class presentations – all those skills helped me translate my own quantitative studies into widely-read deliverables at Kaiser.”
While at Kaiser, he began to write freelance articles that reflected his thinking about issues at the intersection of people and policy – criminal justice, for instance, and civil rights. Before long, he was offered a job at Daily Kos, a liberal blog, where he wrote about the Flint, Mich., water crisis and other environmental justice issues. Those articles caught the eye of folks at The Atlantic, who invited him on board to talk about health reform.
Newkirk credits Gillings School opportunities and mentors with keeping him grounded during his quick rise in the world of health-policy writing.
“The Gillings Merit Scholarship was vital,” he says. “Because I don’t have the burden of paying back student loans, I can take risks and follow stories that will advance our understanding of health policy issues. Good people, like my adviser Chris Shea, were always there for me. Tom Ricketts pushed me to be a responsible and ethical researcher. Jeffrey Simms also has been a mentor in my life, and I always look forward to reunions with him.”
Newkirk says the stories that interest him most are from people we rarely hear from – the vulnerable and underserved. He writes about big-picture health reform, but he wants specifically to tell the story of kids in Alabama who are poisoned by lead paint, Puerto Ricans who suffer from environmental injustice, disabled patients who can pay for treatments, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, and a Latina home health aide trying to survive on minimum wage.
“The guiding principle in my life is to help people when, where and how I can,” Newkirk says. “Right now, that involves my telling stories that spotlight things we’d rather forget. Public health is central to that principle and is perhaps the purest policy expression of it. Our duty as humans should be to ensure the basic welfare and well-being of other humans, and I will continue writing about and being involved in that goal as long as there are people who could benefit from my speaking out. My interest in health disparities is the reason I get out of bed in the morning – because I believe my work can help make the world more equitable and fair.”
Environmental Sciences and Engineering — Alison P. Sanders
Making science communication more effective
Alison P. Sanders, PhD, is on a mission to make sure public health researchers also are skilled communicators.
Sanders, who graduated from the Gillings School in 2013 with a doctoral degree in environmental sciences and engineering and a minor in epidemiology, has co-authored numerous research articles on maternal and fetal exposure to toxic metals. Her work has linked this type of exposure with birth defects and preterm birth, which are leading causes of infant mortality in the United States.
“My research investigates the molecular changes and subsequent health effects caused by developmental exposure in human populations,” she explains. “These findings have important implications for public health and potentially could impact our everyday decisions.”
Sanders’ dedication to excellence in research goes beyond her own areas of expertise. She is a passionate advocate for science education and believes academics should be able to communicate effectively in a wide range of settings. The ability to bridge research and communication, she says, is “a skill that is lacking in the professional development of many scientists.”
After graduation, Sanders became a postdoctoral fellow in environmental medicine and public health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS). Prior to moving to New York City, she also applied to volunteer as a science education fellow with the New York Academy of Sciences.
Now, she co-directs the graduate-level toxicology course in ISMMS’ Master of Public Health program and teaches an after-school environmental health and nutrition program to fourth- and fifth-grade students in East Harlem.
“This was a natural transition between outreach projects I had enjoyed at the UNC Superfund Research Program and my new life in New York,” Sanders says. “I saw an opportunity to promote public health, work with kids, gain professional experience and acclimate to the city. It was a win-win that’s been truly rewarding.”
Inspired by her eager-to-learn students and the dearth of teaching opportunities at private research hospitals like ISMMS, Sanders crafted the Future Leaders in Science Education and Communication Training Program. Her proposal, one of seven selected for funding by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund in 2015, was the only submission led by a postdoctoral fellow.
Sanders now directs of the Icahn School’s first-ever formal teaching training program for postdoctoral fellows, which cultivates principles of teaching and science communication through in-class training and applied experiences. Her program has trained more than 25 fellows, all of whom gained hands-on experience in Sanders’ fifth-grade classroom before moving on to graduate-level teaching.
“In this first year, 20 percent of the program’s trainees have earned promotions or transitioned to new careers in teaching and communication-related fields,” says Sanders. “As we often say, ‘If you can explain science to a fifth-grader, you can explain it to anyone.’”
— Profiles by Jennie Saia and Linda Kastleman
Carolina Public Health is a publication of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health. To view previous issues, please visit sph.unc.edu/cph.