Discovering Public Health

Isabella Mazariegos’ first experience in public health was when she was in high school. She volunteered for Helps International, an organization similar to Doctors without Borders, in a rural village in Guatemala, where she grew up. She worked as a translator between the English-speaking doctors and the Spanish-speaking patients. Communities like these often do not have access to doctors and medicine regularly, so a big focus was placed on prevention, health promotion, and health education. This became a passion and interest to Isabella, and even though she always knew she wanted to be a veterinarian, she also wanted to impact the health and socioeconomic disparities affecting the human population. This led her to pursue a Master of Public Health and her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine at Colorado State University.

“Public health was the perfect way to connect human and animal health, especially through zoonotic infectious diseases, which I find fascinating” she said.

Merging two passions

In the summer of 2018, Isabella started as an intern at Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), an organization that focuses on improving gorilla health and conservation around the Bwindi Impenetrable National park in Uganda. In this area, gorillas, livestock and humans come in close distance of each other frequently. Because gorillas are genetically similar to humans, they can acquire many of our diseases.

“The human interaction poses a risk for the mountain gorillas because, according to the last census, there are only about 1,000 mountain gorillas left in the wild. By keeping humans healthy, CTPH aims to keep gorillas healthy as well” she explained.

Her work included creating presentations for students and community members and visiting villages to promote hygiene, sanitation, family planning, disease prevention, nutrition, and gorilla conservation. She also helped collect and analyze fecal samples from livestock and gorillas to identify the parasites they share.

From the classroom to the gorilla habitat

Isabella implemented her classroom knowledge in her surveys that she conducted in the field. As a result of studying epidemiology with Dr. Molly Gutilla, she learned to recognize the limitations of different studies and the pros and cons of different options. She also learned to adjust her personal bias, something she learned from her Applied Behavior Change Theory class with Dr. Chrissy Chard.

“Recognizing my personal bias when working in these communities in rural Uganda was extremely helpful so I could overcome those biases and really connect with and understand the individuals I was working with” she said.

Looking to the future

CTPH works at the intersection between animal, human and environmental health, which is something Isabella wants to focus on in her future career. As a veterinarian, Isabella wants to provide health care to animals in communities that usually don’t have access to it. She also wants to work towards preventing and treating infectious diseases in animals that could affect humans and their health as well.

Written by Megan Jansson