Earlier this year, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa had doctors and public health experts frantically searching for ways to prevent the disease from spreading to other parts of the world. The outbreak is a timely example of the type of public health challenge that recent University of Iowa College of Public Health graduate Alfonza Brown wants to help solve.
A life-changing experience
Brown, who graduated in May 2015 with a Master of Public Health degree in epidemiology, got a taste of public health during the summer of 2012 while completing an internship in the western African country of The Gambia. The internship was part of a three-month program offered through the Minority Health and Health Disparities International Research and Training (MHIRT) program funded by the National Institutes of Health and administered through the UI College of Public Health.
Brown’s internship involved working with HIV and tuberculosis patients, and assisting with the health management program that oversaw the resources within the country. The experience helped “cement my passion for the field” of public health, Brown says.
“It was a life-changing experience that allowed me to see how developing countries tackled big challenges such as high infectious disease rates and high mortality and morbidity for diseases,” Brown says.
Circling back to epidemiology
Brown had always had an interest in health and diseases. Starting out in microbiology as an undergraduate at the UI, he worked in an infectious disease lab researching influenza as an Iowa Biosciences Academy scholar. However, his degree shifted throughout the years, and he graduated with a degree in psychology in May 2013.
From there, Brown kept the same trend, entering the community and behavioral health track in the College of Public Health because he thought it paired well with psychology. But soon he found out that his interest was really rooted in infectious disease. Coming full circle, his love for epidemiology took over.
“I keep pursuing the field every day because of the interest in what could happen — the possibility of the unknown,” he says. “You never know what’s going to happen, and that’s exciting.”
As a former graduate research assistant under Kelly Baker, assistant professor of occupational and environmental health, he studied the water, sanitation, and hygiene-related mechanisms of infectious disease transmission in Ghana. That same project was paired with UNICEF to investigate sanitation facilities for different schools across the nation.
This summer Brown started a fellowship position with the U.S. Army Public Health Command. According to their website, fellows learn methods of disease surveillance and assist with and eventually conduct specific disease surveillance reviews or related projects, among other duties associated with the job.
Brown says his ideal job would be working as an epidemiologist in a health department as an outbreak specialist. And he feels prepared to tackle that job after his experience at the UI, especially after his 200-hour practicum with the Scott County (Iowa) Health Department. There, his responsibilities included hands-on work generating a statistical analysis report on HIV and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), updating county statistics for reportable STDs, and analyzing county data provided by the Iowa Disease Surveillance System.
“My practicum with Scott County helped me practice what I had learned and allowed me to apply it,” he says. “I worked with the health department for eight weeks on what factors had caused an increase in syphilis in the county.”
A forefront for health
Brown was once asked why he wasn’t pursuing a medical degree, to which he responded, “What we do lays a forefront for health. It’s about prevention and educating the public.”
And, he adds, “I enjoy the constant mystery of the day’s work. Epidemiologists have set projects; however, outbreaks happen all the time, so you never really know what is in store for the day, and I find that really fun. I don’t really like staying still and doing the same thing over and over.”
Photo by Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette. Republished with permission © 2015 Iowa SourceMedia Group, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.