Q&A with Tiffany Rucker, MPH candidate in Global Health
We at Research, Innovation and Global Solutions, interviewed Tiffany Rucker about her professional background before Gillings, her MPH practicum in Uganda, her work as a GRA for the UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases, and why she chose Gillings.
What was your background before enrolling in the MPH program?
I come from a different background than a lot of my classmates. I am the first person in my family to graduate from high school, college, and soon, graduate school. I grew up living in lower economically- and opportunity-resourced communities. Both of those facts have played huge roles in the direction of my career. Growing up in these communities, one is able to witness the strength of individuals doing the best they can with what they’ve been given, and further, the impact that the support of one’s community can play into the success or detriment of one’s goals. I want to utilize and amplify this power – that is, the power that comes from the coalescence of a community striving for the betterment of themselves, individually and as a whole – to improve their health and well-being.
My scientific curiosity has been the secondary driver in my career so far. In my undergraduate education, I sought out every course I could on infectious disease, “international” health (as it was called back then), microbiology, and public health. Knowing that much infectious disease work outside of the United States is under the umbrella of non-profits, I opted to add a minor degree in non-profit studies, to better understand their function and methods of work. I utilized those skills in my field work in Uganda and Belize, as well as in nonprofit work at the Alliance for Aids Services, the low-income clinic at Urban Ministries.
Can you tell us about your global health work in Uganda?
Before coming to Gillings, I was working as a Community Health Specialist for a grassroots NGO in western Uganda. While they work in various areas of community development, my role was based in community health education and program development – particularly as it applied to infectious disease.
Our community was only an hour from a large Ebola outbreak in 2018, so I worked with local leaders to educate the community on the disease, correcting some misinformation spreading about it, and distributing infographics in the local language. Shortly after, we had a large Measles outbreak, where our district tragically lost a few dozen children to the disease. Once the MoH announced its presence in our area, I worked with the community health workers to identify causes for its spread, and then investigated and reported on the barriers to vaccination utilization that parents were facing in the community.
Some of the programs I’m particularly proud of included (1) the implementation of DREAMS, an adolescent girls empowerment and HIV prevention program, from which we graduated over a hundred girls, (2) the planning and implementation of an HIV prevention program for a high risk group of adult men (3x more likely to contract the disease than their counterparts in other professions) that included several unique components, from which we graduated over 50 men, and (3) the creation of a youth-specific clinic day in the HIV care clinic, to help the youth create community, support one another, receive relevant health talks for their age group, and have a bit of fun with music and games – a program that is now in its third year.
This past summer, I returned to Uganda for my MPH practicum where I was tasked with planning and conducting a small community needs assessment. In it, we assessed the community and provider awareness of, community resources for, and estimation of the current prevalence of Sickle Cell Disease in Bugoye Subcounty of western Uganda. We did a lot of hiking, interviewing, and translating – collected a few hundred surveys – and ultimately got a really good view of the current situation of Sickle Cell Disease in the community. The research collaborative I was working under, will utilize the information we gathered to advocate for the importance of bringing testing and treatment services into the community.
Can you tell us more about your position as a graduate research assistant for the UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases?
I’m working for a research study team that is examining a few different things related to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and the study is still expanding, but here are the two main components:
In one study we are looking specifically at health care providers (HCPs). The team is collecting bi-weekly serum and nasal samples from HCPs to track the incidence of and risk factors for infection and comparing this to data we collect on PPE use, interactions between study participants (via electronic tracking sensors), secondary cases in households, as well as participant mental health and well-being.
In a second study, we are looking at population specific infection in one specific county in NC. The team proposes that the true prevalence and incidence of infections in likely much higher than can be accurately reported on (due to different factors, but unequal access to testing and the lack of testing among asymptomatic people are two examples). So by following this community over 24 months, taking blood and nasal swabs to track their antibodies and infection presence over time, we will gain the most possibly accurate data on the true presence of SARS-CoV-2 in the community.
My role spans across a couple of areas. I work in the laboratory processing the samples, the recruitment of new participants, manuscript research and writing, grant research for new sub-studies under the current studies, as well as updating protocols as new IRB approvals allow us to expand the scope of our research.
What does “global health” mean to you?
To me, Global Health has always been about the exceptional idea, that no matter where we live, how we behave, or what beliefs we subscribe to, that there are common drivers behind the health outcomes of individuals that are directly related to the institutions that divide the well from the unwell. Separating health solutions into ones for “here” and for those people “there,” will never accomplish the ultimate goal of public health: the equitable access to quality care and overall wellness; instead, it will further solidify the wall that divides the privileged and the not, resulting in the division of the well and the unwell.
What drew you to the Gillings School of Global Public Health?
When I was first applying to public health graduate schools, it was Gillings approach to diversity and inclusion that was the top reason on my list. The fact that they were willing to own up to the university’s historic role in slavery and its continued efforts to dismantle its institutionalized racism. The number of staff and faculty from various backgrounds, regionalities and orientations let me know that I would be able to receive an education from individuals with diverse perspectives and experiences, reflecting the reality of the populations we wish to serve outside of the university, while practicing in the field of Public Health.
Besides this, I chose Gillings over other programs for two other reasons (1) because of their expertise in research and the opportunities they can provide to aspiring public health researchers and (2) the care and attention that the faculty pays to their students (particularly in the Global Health concentration). While working overseas, on two different occasions, I received personal messages from faculty checking in on me, after reading news articles about troubling issues in nearby regions. They’ve supported me through several hardships that have occurred during my academic career at Gillings – standing by me, vouching for me, and offering whatever support and love that they can. It’s a family. One I’m extremely grateful for.
What is your dream job?
While I LOVE community work, I think in my heart of hearts, I’ve always dreamed of being a “virus hunter.” After an outbreak of something new and unknown, being on the team to search out its origins and methods of spread, collecting information that will inform all the essential next steps: help scientists develop tests and treatments, public health officials design education campaigns and prevention programs, and politicians formulate policies to protect citizens and prevent further spread. – now that would be amazing!
What is your favorite holiday and why?
Christmas, hands down. We didn’t have a lot of money as a kid to do much gift-giving, but we did have loving neighbors, hot coco, cozy sweaters, lots of laughs, and if you took a walk through downtown, with the night all lit up for Christmas, you’d feel that magic, and it’d stick with you all year.