Frances Reuland: A research assistantship paves the way to a career in public health

April 22, 2018

Not every 21-year-old’s prospects are as bright as Frances Reuland’s. A senior majoring in Spanish and Environment and Ecology, Reuland not only is a walk-on midfielder on the UNC women’s soccer team, but has managed to maintain a 4.0 average while at UNC.

Frances Reuland

Frances Reuland

During her first two years in college, Reuland, who has lived in Chapel Hill since she was three, was preparing for medical school. A study-abroad trip to Argentina, however, piqued her interest in public health.

“If public health is what I think I want to do,” Reuland remembers telling herself, “I probably should reach out to faculty and do some field work in environmental health to see if that’s really a possible career path.”

Around that time, Lydia Abebe, PhD, then a postdoctoral researcher at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, advertised for a part-time research assistant to help on a study about water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) issues in health-care facilities in Malawi. Reuland reached out to her, and was pleased to be selected for the job.

“This was my first time being involved in research, so Dr. Abebe definitely took a chance on me,” Reuland said. “I helped design surveys and interview guides that would be implemented the following summer in a low-income setting.”

Reuland knew that UNC had strong and longstanding ties with Malawi (through UNC’s Project Malawi), but she never imagined she would have the opportunity to go there and implement one of the research components she had helped devise.

“But one day, Dr. Abebe said, ‘Hey – do you want to go to Malawi next summer?’ and I found myself answering, ‘yes,’” Reuland recalls.

Since then, Reuland’s interest in the project has grown, to the degree that she is writing her honors thesis about the work she did in Malawi.

“We were trying to incorporate other environmental health components into our WaSH work,” she said, “such as infection control, vector control, energy access and health-care facilities, all issues that are very much a part of environmental health. My thesis focuses on energy availability in health care facilities in Malawi and how it affects other environmental health components. For example, many facilities need energy to pump water, but with erratic electricity supply, they can’t rely on being able to carry out a lot of critical functions that require water – and that has negative impacts for the health outcomes of the patients.”

Jamie Bartram, PhD, Don and Jennifer Holzworth Distinguished Professor of Environmental Sciences at the Gillings School and director of the Water Institute at UNC, said he is impressed with Reuland’s intelligence and her creative approaches to solving problems related to research in the environmental sciences.

“Fran seized the chance to work in Malawi with great enthusiasm,” Bartram said. “Through remarkable skill and hard work, she has delivered insights with the potential to change real-world policy. It has been a pleasure to see her learn and flourish, both as a scholar and in the field.”

Reuland was selected recently as a James C. Gaither Junior Fellows Program recipient. The elite program, run by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, will allow her to work full-time for one year at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, D.C., as a paid research assistant to the endowment’s senior associates in the Energy and Climate Program. Eventually, she would like to come back to school for a Master of Public Health degree.

“I felt pretty strongly that one or two years working in the field would give me a clearer idea of what I wanted to do with a graduate degree,” she said. “I think my work will have to do with energy and climate, from a public health perspective, but we’ll see.”


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Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu