Research begun in MPH practicum project published

A research study undertaken as part of a Master of Public Health degree practicum project found that many veterinarians do not take adequate measures to protect themselves from common occupational hazards, including animal bites, needle sticks, and cuts, which could expose them to zoonotic diseases.

The study, led by Kerry Rood, a recent graduate of the College of Public Health’s MPH degree program for practicing veterinarians, was published in the Journal of Agromedicine. Rood is an extension veterinarian and associate department head in the Department and Animal, Dairy, and Veterinary Sciences at Utah State University.

Read the study at

Iowa entrepreneurs pursue startup success

Two friends with University of Iowa roots co-found a company dedicated to improving people’s communication skills.

Public speaking is a common fear—most of us are anxious about freezing up or tanking in front of a room full of people. Nico Aguilar, a University of Iowa alumnus (14MHA/MPH, 11BS), still vividly remembers the time he bombed a speech in college.

“I had an anxiety attack in front of my entire rhetoric class,” he recalls. “My palms were sweaty, my breath stopped. My mind just went blank and I totally botched my presentation.”

photo of Speeko team
Left to right: Cameron Faerber, Anthony Pham (19MPH, 16MD, 11BS), Nico Aguilar (14MHA/MPH, 11BS), Nicole Cook (04BBA), Will Field-Thompson

That moment helped crystalize Aguilar’s determination to improve his communication skills, a quest that has led to many new doors opening over the following years.

“That journey,” he says, “changed my life.”

Aguilar, along with current UI student Anthony Pham (19MPH, 16MD, 11BS), are co-founders of Speeko, a voice analytics company that uses artificial intelligence to help individuals measure and improve their verbal communication. As a team, the two have pitched their way to startup success at a number of university and international entrepreneurial competitions.

Aguilar and Pham met in class as undergraduates at the UI. Both physiology majors, they worked on several group projects together and became good friends. While in graduate school, they both collaborated on other startup ventures and contributed to a National Institutes of Health-funded research project that measured communication patterns in medical settings.

They were also avid users of mobile apps that help people improve a variety of skills, from learning new languages to tracking exercise to meditating—products that “are like having a coach in your pocket,” Pham says. “We were seeing this happen in other industries, and we thought: Why aren’t we leveraging the incredible advances in technology to improve communication coaching?”

Merging these experiences and ideas, Pham and Aguilar created Speeko two-and-half years ago, working on the company nights and weekends while pursuing their graduate studies. They connected with the UI John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (JPEC) and participated in numerous events, winning the Rose Francis Elevator Pitch Competition and Business Model Competition. The latter event propelled them to the 2018 International Business Model Competition, where they placed as semifinalists.

Most recently, the Speeko team was selected by Techstars, a global startup accelerator, to be part of its 2018 Chicago cohort. Only 10 companies from over 2,200 applications were chosen for the three-month program that ran July through October. Techstars provided the teams with workspace and direct access to a mentor network of Midwest tech investors, executives, and founders.

The Speeko team, which now includes five full-time members, will continue working in the Techstars office for the next nine months. To cap off a great summer, the Speeko app officially launched in October 2018.

While Aguilar is based in Chicago and works full-time on Speeko, Pham is at the UI finishing up his Master of Public Health degree in occupational and environmental health.

Aguilar and Pham draw parallels between their shared public health background and their business venture. “Improving people’s communication skills is how we want to improve people’s lives,” Pham says. “The ability to communicate effectively contributes to your personal and professional success and well-being.”

“If our technology can intervene and improve the transmission of thoughts and ideas, it will have many positive downstream impacts,” Aguilar notes.

They also have advice for aspiring student entrepreneurs.

“The university has an abundance of resources available. JPEC will connect you to a strong local network of entrepreneurs and mentors. That’s how we got our start,” Pham says. “It may take you out of your comfort zone to present your ideas to new people. Taking that first step is the only way you can learn, and it will make all the difference in turning your ideas into reality.”

“My biggest piece of advice is to enjoy the journey,” Aguilar says. “There are so many ups and downs, and there are always a million priorities competing for your attention, but this should be about the journey and not just the destination. It’s important to appreciate the experience and have perspective throughout it.

“We’re grateful for the support from the University of Iowa and JPEC,” Aguilar adds. “We wouldn’t be where we are today without that support across the campus.”

UI students contribute to research on Roma health disparities in Romania

Romania political map. Illustration.On the edge of the thriving city of Cluj, Romania, is the decidedly not thriving community of Pata Rât. Located at Cluj’s former city dump, it’s filled with ramshackle houses, little indoor plumbing, pollution, and dirt roads that quickly turn to mud.

The population is about 1,500 people and almost all of them are Roma, otherwise known by the pejorative term gypsies. They are scattered throughout Europe and are subject to discrimination wherever they live. Pata Rât is an example of this. Many of its residents, about 350 people, once lived in a residential neighborhood in Cluj until the government evicted them and forced them to move to a landfill.

Health Care Disparities

Far from jobs and schools in the city—the nearest bus stop is about a mile and a half away, on the other side of a rail yard—and forced to live in a literal dump of a neighborhood, the people of Pata Rât have suffered significant health issues as a result. This summer, a group of 13 University of Iowa students from across the campus traveled to Romania as part of the Minority Health and Health Disparities International Training Program (MHIRT), a research training internship program to encourage under-represented minorities to pursue health careers. Two of the students—Darian Thompson and Breanna Kramer—worked with the Roma population in Pata Rât, on projects led by mentors at the Cluj School of Public Health that quantifies what that impact has been and help improve the lives of the children who live there.

“They met with Roma and held focus groups to determine what the health care disparities are between the Roma and the general Romanian population,” says Rema Afifi, professor of community and behavioral health in the College of Public Health who coordinated the training grant. She notes that the Roma—who make up about 8 percent of Romania’s population—have much higher rates of poor health outcomes than the general population as a result of the social, economic, and environmental conditions that surround them.

The students spent ten weeks in Romania, guided and mentored by researchers at the Cluj School of Public Health at Babeș-Bolyai University who have been monitoring health issues among the Roma for many years. They performed field work gathering data, and computational work analyzing the data. What they found was a largely homogenous population of white, ethnic Romanians with little acceptance of minorities such as the Roma.

Discriminatory Attitudes

Darian Thompson, one of the students participating in the MHIRT research internship, points to surveys that show 56 percent of Romanians do not feel comfortable living near Roma and 38 percent would not agree to have a Roma as a friend. While Romania’s unemployment rate is 8 percent, among the Roma, it’s 34 percent, and most of those who are employed work in unskilled, low-wage jobs.

Thompson is an African-American and so he’s seen and felt racism in the United States. What he saw directed at the Roma in Romania less subtle and more abrasive than the discrimination directed against minorities in the U.S.

“I was surprised by how openly discriminatory the population was toward the Roma,” says Thompson, a junior pre-med major from Cedar Rapids. “I realized that while we still have a lot of issues to work out in the U.S., we’re still pretty accepting of minorities compared to people in other parts of the world.”

Thompson spent most of his ten weeks of the project analyzing data, comparing past statistics to newly gathered data while looking for changes and trends. Meanwhile, Breanna Kramer, a Master of Public Health student in the College of Public Health, was in the field, talking with the Pata Rât Roma about their health.

Helping Children Succeed

Kramer’s work was focused on measuring the effectiveness of a Cluj School of Public Health program that’s designed to help Roma children in Pata Rât succeed in school. Because of transportation difficulties and fear of discrimination, most Pata Rât parents keep their children in a local, segregated school in the community. But Kramer says the school is substandard and the language of instruction is their native Romani, instead of the Romanian they will need to learn to be successful.

The program helps the students by providing bus transportation to better quality schools, new clothing, access to showers, hot meals, and other assistance to better prepare them for learning. Kramer says that preliminary research suggests the program is working to fulfill family needs at a basic level.

“It’s taking that weight off their parents so the kids can go to school and get the education they need,” says Kramer, from Donnellson, Iowa. “But poverty and discrimination still exist, and for that to improve, large-scale institutional change needs to happen, which will take years.”

Afifi says funding for the training program came from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, a federal agency designed to lead scientific research that improves minority health and reduces health disparities through promotion and support of the training of a diverse research workforce. All 13 of the UI students who participated were from minorities underrepresented in the health sciences.

What are the health effects of growing up as a military kid?

a soldier hugging his childThe children of U.S. service members grow up under unique circumstances, experiencing numerous moves, frequent changes in schools and friends, and long separations from deployed parents. These challenges caused sisters Cassidy Watson and Kelsey Schertz — self-described “military brats” — to wonder about the health outcomes of military children.

Now in their mid-20s, Watson and Schertz were both drawn to the field of public health. Watson (18MPH) recently graduated from the University of Iowa and Schertz is an MPH candidate at the University of Minnesota. Their father, a pilot, served consecutive stints in the U.S. Air Force, Air Force Reserve, and Air National Guard over a period of 22 years that included more than 20 overseas deployments.

Based on their own experiences, Watson and Schertz co-authored an article that appeared in the July 2018 issue of the American Journal of Public Health titled, “What Becomes of America’s Military Brats?”

“Growing up in the military is both physically and mentally disruptive,” they write, listing many of the stressors military children face. “Over time and after multiple deployments, resilience can wear thin. Emerging evidence suggests that military children struggle with more mental health and behavioral problems than their civilian counterparts, particularly at times of deployment.”

Watson and Schertz go on to pose a number of questions about military children as they age out of dependent status and transition into civilian life.

“What are the late-stage effects of growing up as a military child? Do these experiences shape — negatively or positively — health and behavior outcomes or health care utilization in adulthood? And if so, are targeted interventions needed?” Watson and Schertz ask.

Currently the answers are unknown because there are no data. Once they are of age, children of service members aren’t tracked in medical records or registries, making it difficult to identify them. Military kids could number in the tens of millions, the authors estimate.

“In the sphere of public health, a robust evidence base is critical to identify knowledge gaps, propose interventions, and inform policy decisions,” Watson and Schertz write. “We hope to encourage dialogue that considers whether we might be missing an important part of the health disparity puzzle by not evaluating the long-term effects of growing up a military kid.”

Alumna Tala Al-Rousan named Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health

portrait of Tala Al-RousanUniversity of Iowa College of Public Health alumna Dr. Tala Al-Rousan (15MPH) has been named an Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health by the Atlantic Institute. This is the organization’s first full global cohort of Fellows.

Al-Rousan will be investigating how the stress resulting from war and displacement affects rates of dementia in a group of refugees in the Middle East. She will also be creating a network of experts in brain health to reduce disease burden and use a public health lens to assess aging in the Middle East and North African region.

Al-Rousan received her master’s degree in public health from the University of Iowa and her medical degree from Cairo University. After completing a fellowship in global health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, she joined the Department of Global Public Health, University of California San Diego as a postdoctoral fellow. She joined the Global Brain Health Institute as a fellow at the University of California San Francisco in 2017. She is a recipient of two awards from the Aging Section of the American Public Health Association.

“The Atlantic Fellows are energetic, diverse, international leaders who are acting on the world’s urgent needs and collaborating to build healthy and equitable societies. The Fellows’ work, individually and as a community, represents our highest aspirations for what our founder Chuck Feeney and the Atlantic Philanthropies set out to achieve over 35 years ago,” said Christopher G. Oechsli, president and CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies.

The Atlantic Philanthropies has committed more than US $660 million to seed and support the work of the global network of thousands of Atlantic Fellows over the next twenty years. The full list of Fellows, and more information on the programs, can be found here.