Samantha Loh is a second-year MPH student in the epidemiology concentration at Colorado State University. Her favorite course, which confirmed that she had made the right choice in concentration, was Epidemiology for Public Health with Dr. Molly Gutilla. This is where she was first introduced to Dr. Jessica Elf, faculty in Epidemiology in the Colorado School of Public Health and in the CSU department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences, who came to class to give a guest lecture.

“Dr. Elf talked about her previous research on TB, HIV, and smoking cessation. Her enthusiasm for her research was really inspiring to me and I decided that I wanted to learn as much as possible from her” she said.

Samantha approached Dr. Elf after class and learned that she needed help with her smokeless tobacco, or snuff, pilot study that she was interested in conducting in South Africa. Shortly after, Samantha was offered a Graduate Research Assistant position with Dr. Elf and was on her way to South Africa.

Studying culture and behavior

Dr. Elf’s study looks at the patterns and behaviors of snuff use in HIV-positive and HIV-negative individuals in the Matlosana sub-district. Prevalence of tobacco use is relatively unknown in this region, especially for the HIV-positive population. It is known, however, that tobacco use in the HIV community results in excess morbidity and mortality.

The idea for this study comes from Dr. Elf’s previous research which found that 48% of women surveyed in the Matlosana sub-district indicated that they used snuff, which is much higher than the national estimate. When trying to determine the reasons for this, there was a general lack of knowledge surrounding snuff, especially nasal snuff.

Tshepong Hospital with Dr. Tumelo Moloantoa

“To try and fill this gap, we are conducting surveys, in-depth interviews, and focus groups all of which focus heavily on snuff use and the reasons behind it. We are hoping that the information collected will help to inform future snuff cessation programs” Samantha said.

This project is in collaboration with the Perinatal HIV Research Unit (PHRU) of the University of the Witwatersrand and Johns Hopkins University.

“I think I am extremely lucky to have a preceptor like Dr. Elf who has given me the freedom to address challenges independently, while still providing the necessary guidance to ensure the success of the study. My knowledge on international research and collaboration has increased exponentially, and I am just getting started” she said.


Bright future

Samantha plans to graduate in May 2020. One of her career goals is to help broaden our understanding of different diseases and how they can be prevented and treated most effectively. Her plan after graduation is to continue working internationally. She loves traveling and being exposed to and learning about different cultures. Besides working in South Africa, she did her practicum in rural Uganda last summer and studied abroad in Jordan during her undergraduate degree. Eventually, she also plans to pursue her doctoral degree.

Written by Megan Jansson

Table Mountain in South Africa