SPH students increased access to healthy foods, spread HIV awareness and more this summer

SPH student Leanna Komoroske masked and holding a box of plants

SPH student Leanna Komoroske at her internship at Brightside Up, where she helped with the Farm to Preschool program. 

 

ALBANY, N.Y. (Sept. 15, 2020) – Experiential learning in real-life community settings and applied research is a hallmark of programs at the School of Public Health and the summer during a global pandemic is no exception. Students worked on community-based internships and research that is making a difference locally and even internationally.\

 

Increasing Access to Healthy Foods

Leanna Komoroske, an MPH and Maternal Child Health certificate student, interned on the Farm to Preschool program at Brightside Up, a non-profit organization that works with parents, employers and childcare providers in the Capital Region.

The program, which is state and federally funded, aims to reduce cost and access barriers to locally grown produce for children and their families. She created recipe demonstration videos on YouTube, helped with Brightside’s weekly newsletter and farmers market, planned exercise activities for children, and created opportunities for them to taste new healthy foods. Additionally, she helped build garden beds to provide fruits, vegetables, flowers, and herbs for the childcare centers and created garden kits that were mailed home to children so they could participate in gardening activities at home.

During the summer, Komoroske saw firsthand how she can apply what she learns in the classroom and said her goal — to work with children and combat large public health issues — has only been strengthened through her internship experience.

“I love being able to see my education grow into something more that I can pass on to others,” she said. “For example, while creating my recipe demonstration videos, I was able to use my education and keep in mind my priority population and how best to deliver the information to them.”

Komoroske isn’t the only MPH student who dedicated her summer to increasing access to healthy food. Elizabeth Miller interned with the Food Pantries of the Capital District’s Food Connect Mobile Outreach project, which provides free fresh produce and other resources to communities in need. Miller helped prepare and collect the produce, assemble bags with two to four different kinds of produce, transported them to various sites for distribution, handed out information about other resources, scheduled volunteers and collected data.

Given the COVID-19 pandemic, Miller had the added responsibility of ensuring that the set-up was safe for all involved. She called the experience challenging but said it also was rewarding because she could apply concepts from her courses on health disparities, and implement, plan and evaluate programs to ensure safety for all involved with the process.

“I am very grateful to partake in an internship like this at a time when it is desperately needed in our community,” Miller said, explaining that she heard many community members talk about food insecurity. “It has motivated me even more to aid people. I really enjoy working with the public and knowing that I can make a difference, even when there is so much uncertainty in the world.”

 

Spreading HIV Awareness

MPH student Anthony Malloni worked to spread awareness to prevent HIV transmission by working with the NYS Department of Health’s (NYSDOH) AIDS Institute, a partner institution for UAlbany’s Center for Collaborative HIV Research in Practice and Policy (CCHRPP). He created a toolkit for colleges to use to increase pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) awareness and uptake for PrEP Aware Week, a national initiative in October. PreEP is a medication that, if taken properly, prevents HIV transmission.

Designed with college students as the target audience, it includes graphics, PrEP activity ideas, videos, educational materials, social media posts and resources to order PrEP promotional materials. Malloni also connected with college health and wellness centers, clubs and campus residential offices across the state to increase the reach of toolkit. The main goal, he said, was “to make ‘PrEP Aware Week’ easy for colleges to implement for their campus communities.”

Malloni hopes to work in a policy-related position for infectious diseases like HIV. He stresses that often there are preventative treatments that can improve public health, but these treatments often do not reach their full potential due to a lack of effective health policy.

“I want to work in a position where I can help ensure that treatments like PrEP are able to be fully utilized to help the public,” Malloni said. “Through my internship, I’m proud to already be fulfilling my career aspirations to improve people’s lives and create a positive change in society.”

 

Making an Impact Abroad

Aizhan Kyzayeva, a trained medical doctor from Kazakhstan, is working towards her Master’s of Epidemiology at UAlbany through a Fogarty International Fellowship. She has a particular interest in statistical analysis and HIV/AIDS research, so an internship assessing opioid overdose-related deaths among people living with HIV at NYSDOH’s AIDS Institute was fitting.

She worked with a database of people living with HIV in New York State and utilized statistical analysis software, and participated in meetings, conferences and discussions that helped to shape ideas for future projects she would like to complete.

“This internship gave me priceless experience working with ‘real data’ to hone and apply the theoretical knowledge obtained during my study at UAlbany,” Kyzayeva said.

Kyzayeva plans to return to Kazakhstan and conduct HIV and AIDS research to improve public health, believing she will apply all knowledge and experience gained at UAlbany and the AIDS Institute in her home country in the future. She notes that her internship mentors, Wendy Patterson and Mark Rosenthal, and her faculty advisor Professor Lenore Gensburg, played critical roles in helping her explore new statistical approaches and critical thinking skills, both increasingly important for public health students amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Despite the difficulties of this time, this period is a unique opportunity for epidemiology students to observe and to participate in pandemic response and go from theoretical to practical application of knowledge,” Kyzayeva said.

 

Researching the Impacts of Chemicals on In Vitro Fertilization

This summer, Environmental Health Sciences PhD candidate Celeste Butts was the first author on an academic paper that found that higher seafood consumption is associated with higher exposure to toxic metals for women undergoing in vitro fertilization.

Butts explained that human exposure to toxic trace elements such as arsenic and lead is common, occurring through diet and occupational exposures. At high levels, toxic trace elements may have detrimental effects on reproduction, and at low levels, the impact on reproductive function remains unclear—but evidence suggests associations with adverse reproductive outcomes specifically for those who undergo in vitro fertilization.

The study, published in Environmental Research, took a novel approach to assessing human exposure to toxic trace elements, examining ovarian follicular fluid (which surrounds the developing egg cell) rather than blood or urine. Participants were undergoing in vitro fertilization at the University of California at San Francisco, and exposure to toxic trace elements was measured when the eggs were taken from participants’ ovaries. A questionnaire was then collected to gather data on daily and annual consumption of a comprehensive panel of fish, shellfish and other food items.

Butts’ and the team’s results showed that recent and long-term seafood consumption was associated with greater arsenic and mercury concentrations in follicular fluid.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to report that diet might be a source of toxic trace elements in follicular fluid, making it very exciting research.”

-Courtesy of UAlbany Media Relations Team