Toby Turla connects UNC students to critical peer support in uncertain times.
What’s your role in public health?
I’m a senior right now in environmental health. I’m on the pre-med track, but I also have an interest in the preventative aspect of public health. This summer, I interned in the lab of Dr. Rebecca Fry, where I researched how household chemicals affect liver cells. I’m very interested in seeing how day-to-day environmental factors affect human health.
I’m also co-founder of Peer2Peer, a student-led group here at UNC that offers students free one-on-one peer support sessions with a trained peer responder via Zoom, phone or text. One of my fellow co-founders, Sonam Shah, is also a public health student in the health policy and management department.
Taking care of our mental health is a big part of public health. It’s been especially important during the pandemic, when many of us have felt the loss of autonomy and the ability to talk to our friends and have access to the places that make us feel safe and well. But therapy can be expensive — and, at the end of the day, a lot of people just want another person to talk to, especially someone who is unbiased and will listen without judgement. That’s one of the big reasons we launched Peer2Peer. It’s very important for us to respect confidentiality, and students always have the option to talk to a peer responder anonymously.
Peer2Peer is a growing program, and it’s already had great impact. We have undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students on our team, and the peer responders we train have many different lived experiences and come from a range of backgrounds. Representation is very important to us. We’ve also worked with people at the School of Social Work and with Dr. Edwin Fisher of the Peers for Progress program to develop and implement a response plan for students experiencung a mental health emergency.
Can you describe your focus area in one sentence?
My interests are in environmental toxicology and preventative health care.
Even though I’m pre-med, being an environmental health major at the Gillings School has really widened the scope of how I approach populations that are sick or have the potential to be sick. I see the value in public health for addressing the largest scale issues. A physician treats the patient once they’re sick, but in public health, we’re trained to address the root causes.
I’d like to incorporate what I’ve learned at Gillings into a career in some area of health care policy, especially involving environmental justice. The living environment is more than just the water we drink. People are supposed to be safe in their communities, but that can be difficult when their built environment presents challenges to their health.
What brought you to public health?
During my junior and senior years of high school, I did a clinical research internship at Duke University that focused on ethics in pharmacology research. It’s how I met Sonam, who has been one of my best friends since that time. The internship involved participating in information sessions on different health care fields, including epidemiology and biostatistics. One of the speakers worked in pediatric health and told us about a case where they noticed that babies who rode in strollers in big cities were more likely to have poor lung health because exhaust pipes on cars face the sidewalk.
Even though I grew up with an interest in becoming a physician, learning about that case helped to put the broad scope of public health into perspective for me. It sparked my interest to learn more, and I eventually took a course in public health, where I learned that you don’t have to be a doctor at all to provide care or serve communities.
I came to UNC to pursue a health policy and management major, because I was really interested in public policy. But then I realized I had to take an economics class! Luckily, I discovered the environmental health major, which has similarly aligned with my interests. My journey to public health is the culmination of multiple, small experiences. My parents were a supportive and positive part of that, as well. My mom is a physician and has helped me to explore specialties like preventative medicine.
How have you pivoted in response to the coronavirus pandemic?
Going remote has felt a bit like going back in time for me. Last semester, I ended up having to leave campus and go back home to take classes online. My room hasn’t changed since senior year of high school, and it was surreal that my world had suddenly shifted back to those four walls. I still have my calendar from senior year written on my whiteboard. My AP books are still stacked in the corner. Time has frozen into this weird split where I feel like I’m a senior in high school even though I’m a senior in college.
That’s a feeling that I knew a lot of other people were experiencing, too, which is what led to the founding of Peer2Peer. It was developed as an online program because we couldn’t meet in person due to COVID-19, but people still need to talk to someone. The program has taken off in directions we never expected when we first launched it. We’ve been able to work with organizations like the provost’s cabinet, Peers for Progress and Carolina Covenant Scholars, and we’re still expanding.
I encourage anyone who is seeking support to check out our website. We’re here to listen.
Who are you when you’re at home?
I am a big fan of Yelp — I’m Yelp certified! I pride myself in being a big foodie. I love trying different foods, I’m passionate about Yelping, and everywhere I go I take pictures of the food. I find it to be a fun way to connect with the community. I’m not the kind of person who will go to a new city and visit a chain restaurant — I want to try something local. I wish I could do more group dinners, but it’s harder to do right now because of COVID-19.
I recently started biking with my dad. I also love baking. During quarantine, I’ve baked a total of 78 times (so far)! There was a point during the pandemic when flour was hard to find, which was frustrating. But I love The New York Times’ cooking section — testing out their recipes with my mom and dad is one of my favorite things to do. I love spending time with my parents, and my mom loves all the sweets.
My favorite thing to bake is brown butter and toffee chocolate chip cookies. It’s a life-changing recipe! They’re great to make and give to people, like new neighbors, to say hello and meet friendly faces. My goal is to become an expert baker, and I’m hoping to get new set of cooling racks for my birthday. Hopefully, that will help me become a cookie master.