Rep. Castor and Sam Bell visit students ready to help solve world’s pressing public health problems

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U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor with Sam Bell, founder of the USF College of Public Health, and the college’s dean Dr. Donna Petersen.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor visited the USF College of Public Health April 7 to commemorate National Public Health Week (April 6-12) and to help celebrate the college’s 30th anniversary.

The congresswoman was joined by COPH founder Sam Bell who, as a member  of the Florida House of Representatives, was instrumental in pushing legislation that created the state’s first accredited public health college in 1984.  They met with COPH Dean Donna Petersen, ScD, and students representing colleges’ diverse areas of study, from community and family health, global health and prevention research to public health practice and epidemiology.

“I want to thank you for all that you do to improve global health, prevent disease nationally and all your efforts locally,” Castor said to the students and faculty gathered in the college’s lobby.  “USF Health understands the importance of integrating all its health colleges, including public health, for the betterment of students and to improve the lives of our entire community.”

Castor noted the USF College of Public Health’s boost in graduate program rankings, making it among the nation’s best in the latest U.S. News & World Report “America’s Best Graduate Schools” edition. She and Dr. Petersen also thanked Sam Bell for his vision in helping establish a strong public health college well positioned to respond systemically and at the grassroots level to the next 30 years of public health challenges.

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Students represented the colleges’ diverse areas of study, from community and family health, global health and prevention research to public health practice and policy.

“We know that a healthy nation is a vibrant and productive nation,” Dr. Petersen said, referring to this year’s theme for National Public Health Week, Healthiest Nation 2030.  “We understand the need to take care of the health of all people to protect our nation’s health…. we know that diseases don’t stop at customs.”

Dr. Petersen is spearheading a national initiative to make public health education more accessible to undergraduates and enhance public health literacy. Last month at an Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health conference in Washington, DC, she and Bell met with USF public health alumni from across the greater DC area — public health researchers, practitioners and administrators now serving in leadership roles at the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Health and Human Services and other high-profile organizations.

“At the end of the day, what makes this college great is our people, including the students who have joined us here today,” Dr. Petersen said.

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Fulbright scholar Mpumy Mzizi from Swaziland, Africa, is studying the parasitic disease river blindness in a laboratory of the USF College of Public Health’s Global Infectious Diseases Research team.

COPH sound-icon-png tiny Mpumy Mzizi.

That includes USF public health students like Fulbright scholar Mpumy Mzizi from Swaziland, Africa, who is studying river blindness, or onchocerciasis, caused by a parasitic worm, in the laboratory of Thomas Unnasch, PhD, a renowned expert on the world’s second leading infectious cause of blindness.  Like Taylor Caragan, an MPH student working on a March of Dimes supported initiative to analyze pre-term birth rates in all 67 Florida counties.  And, like Laura Merrell, a doctoral candidate who worked with professor Ellen Daley, PhD, and other graduate students in developing the critical messaging for an awareness campaign to help boost HPV vaccination rates among teens in the Tampa Bay area.

Castor also took the opportunity to speak about legislation she has introduced (H.R. 777) that would make funding for the National Institutes of Health no longer subject to the annual congressional budget process. On the public health front, NIH research has in large part led to treatments extending the lives of those with HIV into their early 70s, and helps protect against bioterrorism, new and emerging diseases, flu pandemics and deadly outbreaks of diseases like SARS and Ebola.

“We’ve invested so much in (educating) these fantastic students,” Castor said, “We need to make sure these young researchers can continue with their work once they graduate.”

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 Photos by Eric Younghans and video by Sandra Roa, USF Health Communications and Marketing

For more stories on National Public Health Week at USF, click here.