Each semester, the Public Health Forum brings MPH students together to present their capstone projects. They spend months researching, creating, and perfecting their projects, and their presentations are a reminder of the many possibilities and responsibilities in public health. This fall’s forum covered subjects ranging from cows monitoring air pollution, assessing household health in Ghana, and the connection between mindfulness and diabetes in the Latinx community.

One presenter, Jackson Runte, an MPH/DVM dual degree student from the Epidemiology concentration, worked on solutions to reducing plague in black tailed prairie dogs with the USDA. Because the human and urban population continues to grow in Colorado, prairie dogs are being displaced and end up living in high population density areas. Prairie dogs can carry the plague, and large populations living close together increase the risk of transmission and could possibly infect other species, pets and humans. The techniques in place to control the prairie dog population include relocation and lethal control, but both are short-term solutions. Therefore, Jackson and his team decided to use a contraceptive called GonaCon, which is a method that has been shown effective in other species. Compared to the control groups, the team was able to decrease the prairie dog population in areas where they used this contraceptive. The success of this method is great news because it doesn’t carry any risk of effecting other species or people who share the environment with the prairie dogs, which other methods do.

Jackson Runte

“This capstone project was an incredible research opportunity for me. As an MPH/DVM candidate, having experience with an animal population will open up many doors and opportunities as I make my way through veterinary school. It has allowed me to show my understanding of the important role animals play in public health and has given me the chance to design and execute a study” said Jackson.

Another student, Michelle Kramaric from the Animals, People, & Environment concentration, worked with the City of Fort Collins and Larimer County on predicting West Nile virus infections from surveillance of Culex mosquitoes in Fort Collins. She spent her summer collecting mosquitoes in Riverbend Natural pond, using light traps and carbon dioxide. Surveilling mosquitoes helps create a threshold value to better understand the risk of a West Nile virus outbreak. As a result of past years of surveillance, Larimer County has significantly reduced their cases of West Nile. Michelle described how public education is another important factor in preventing infection, and how the public can take preventative and proactive measures to protect themselves.

Another MPH candidate and also Peace Corp volunteer, Elizabeth Ochoa, from the Global Health & Health Disparities concentration, focused on developing an HIV awareness and testing campaign in Cameroon. During her community needs assessment, she found that there was low awareness of HIV and HIV status, as well as a stigma associated with the disease.

“The strategy I used for increasing HIV testing and awareness was to provide free access to HIV testing and HIV education during 4 market days at 4 different villages that culminated with a soccer match on World Aids Day” said Elizabeth.

Another objective of the campaign was to reduce the stigma associated with HIV, so Elizabeth and her team used a number of activities including the use of role models who talked about their experience being HIV positive. They also used myth and facts activities that targeted some of the cultural misconceptions surrounding HIV.

Elizabeth gained many skills through this project that she feels will help her in her future career.

Elizabeth Ochoa

“I learned how to work in a diverse setting, how to engage stakeholders, and the importance of making culturally relevant programs that use targeted risk-communication to change risky behaviors. It also helped me better understand public health’s role in helping alter the course of epidemics from a global health perspective and how to implement HIV testing campaigns in rural communities” she said.

A common theme at the Public Health Forum this semester was the importance of the capstone project being a practice-based learning opportunity. Students put in many hours of work and felt that they walked away with new and important skills for their future careers in public health and that the experiences inspired them to continue steering toward their public health passion.

Written by Megan Jansson