What was your background before enrolling in the MPH program?
I did my undergraduate here at UNC, majoring in Psychology and Biology. During this time, I worked on a research project for three semesters on gene editing in zebrafish to induce point mutations in genes related to photoreception. I also raised funds for UNC at UNC Phonathon, ending my time there as a supervisor and PCM Apprentice.
After graduating, I worked in direct sales for a solar company in Colorado and decided to transition to something more closely related to health and my undergraduate degrees. I also decided to apply to MPH programs so I could work in a field that would provide more direct benefits to people and make better use of my background. I moved to Charlotte and started as a pharmacy technician for a large animal hospital, then transitioned to a lab technician role at the animal hospital. As a lab technician, I became more interested in using microscopy to diagnose enteric parasitic infections and other pathologies.
Could you tell us about your GRA position in Dr. Joe Brown’s lab?
I started working for Dr. Joe Brown in January 2021. My GRA has centered on the Alabama Hookworm (AH) project and my main role has been processing stool samples (and training others to process stool samples) using microscopy. The aim of this study is to determine the prevalence of key enteric pathogens in the black belt region of rural Alabama.
Later, my role in the AH project expanded to using molecular methods to analyze project samples. One example was using a human mitochondrial DNA digital PCR assay to ensure we were receiving human samples. Lately, I’ve been working on validating our preservation methods using digital PCR. I extracted nucleotides from hookworm infected canine samples (with Giardia and Shigella spiked in) that were stored in different commonly used preservatives in this field. Now I’m running those extracted nucleotides on digital PCR assays that I’ve optimized and using the data generated to assess the performance of the different preservatives. I’ve also been optimizing a human hookworm assay for our digital PCR platform to use on our project samples.
Intermittently, I’ve helped analyze our MapSan samples. The MapSan study is a sanitation intervention in Maputo, Mozambique, and we have various environmental samples (latrines, soil, etc) from there that I’ve worked on processing through microscopy.
What has been your favorite class during your time at Gillings?
My favorite class at Gillings was PUBH/ENVR 705: One Health: Philosophy to the Practical Integration of Human, Animal, and Environmental Health. We had a different guest lecturer (or lecturers) each week who talked about their work in One Health. All of the lecturers were fantastic and had different perspectives on the interconnections between human, animal, and environmental health. I’ve been interested in those connections in the past, but this class inspired me to consider them in more depth in the work I did for my practicum. We had really great discussions at the end of each class. I also liked being able to explore my interests such as the human/animal/environmental connections in parasitology through the final paper. I learned a lot about Toxocara in working on that assignment and a group video project, which was cool because it’s a parasite I’ve seen a lot but didn’t know much about. Toxocara is a neglected intestinal parasite that infects cats and dogs but can also cause incidental infection in humans through the environment. I think anyone who has an interest in infectious diseases should take this class. It greatly changed my perception of how we prevent, address, and prioritize different diseases.
Can you tell us about your MPH practicum?
For my MPH practicum I tested open defecation samples from sidewalks in San Francisco for a wide range of pathogens using custom TAC qPCR cards from the AH project. I also ran them on our human mtDNA digital PCR assay to assess the proportion of stools that were human. The samples were collected by Dr. Joe Brown’s collaborators at UC Berkeley who are studying the impact of Pit Stop interventions on sanitation in San Francisco. Currently, I’m working on modeling the impact of the Pit Stop intervention on the release of pathogens into the environment.
What does “global health” mean to you?
The viewpoint I came into this program with, which has been reinforced, is that all humans and their health are interconnected. To solve issues in one community, we have to consider the broader context. Many of the issues I’m interested in, such as parasitic infections, are highly prevalent globally. Many “neglected parasitic infections” in the US have important global and One Health implications. I think public health programs in the US can be overly myopic and fail to consider the global, social, and ecological context. To me, global health means actively working to increase one’s understanding of the context of an issue to inform holistic, culturally humble, and interdisciplinary solutions.
What drew you to the Gillings School of Global Public Health?
I got my bachelor’s at UNC and helped with a research project in a building near Gillings, so I passed by Gillings often. It interested me as an undergrad because of my interest in other places, cultures, and health. When I did fundraising for UNC, I talked to many Gillings alumni and they seemed to have really interesting careers and great things to say about the program. I graduated from UNC but looked into careers in public health more and thought it would be a good fit for me. I related to the Gillings mantra that “global is local” because I believe all communities are interconnected. Also, it’s the number one public school of public health and it’s in my home state. It was really the obvious choice when I decided to apply to MPH programs.
What is your dream job?
This is a tough question. I don’t think I have a dream job per se. I like a challenge so I hope to always do work that is challenging. I also feel most motivated working in jobs that help others and promotes health equity. I also hope to keep doing work that involves microscopy. I really love microscopy and the challenge of figuring out what something is under the microscope; doing this gets me into the flow state. So, I would say my dream job would have a major microscopy component, help improve public health, and increase in challenge as my skills improve.
What is your favorite camping trip and why?
I have a lot of favorite camping trips. My number one favorite might be when I saw the total solar eclipse in 2017. I was living in Colorado at the time and drove up to Glendo, Wyoming to camp out for the weekend and watch it. The eclipse was perhaps the coolest and certainly the most surreal thing I’ve ever seen. It’s truly an experience that can’t be captured by pictures. The actual sun being blocked by the moon alone is worth seeing, but everything surrounding it is just as incredible. A 360° sunset forms on the horizon and it looks like twilight in the middle of the day leading up to totality. Animal behavior changes as well. Crickets were chirping before and after the eclipse and an antelope sprinted across the field in the middle of totality. It was something I’ll never forget.
March 4, 2024 James Swenberg, DVM, DACVP, PhD, Kenan Distinguished Professor at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, died October 5, 2023. There will be a Scientific Symposium to honor him and his work on March 22 from 3–5 p.m. in 133 Rosenau Hall at the Gillings School.