Dr. Tom Unnasch is named 2019 Distinguished University Professor

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Dr. Tom Unnasch, the strategic area lead of Global and Planetary Health in the USF College of Public Health (COPH) was recently named a USF Distinguished University Professor.

According to the website of the USF Office of the Provost, Dr. Ralph Wilcox, the award “recognizes senior faculty members who have distinguished themselves among their peers, both within and outside the university.”

Unnasch was nominated for the distinction by Dr. Donna Petersen, dean of the COPH. In her nomination letter, Petersen notes Unnasch’s many contributions to the college, including:

  • Advising and mentoring MPH, MSPH and PhD students
  • Developing a hands-on laboratory techniques course and laboratory rotations course
  • Organizing a “Current Topics in Global Health Infectious Diseases” journal club

Unnasch joins an elite group of only about 80 USF Distinguished University Professors. As part of the honor, his responsibilities will include attending meetings with the provost and vice presidents to report on the status of the college. He’ll also deliver two lectures—one specific to the college and a more general one for the university.

Unnasch has made a name for himself as a vector-borne disease expert. 

“Tom is regarded by many as one of the world’s leading experts on onchocerciasis, or river blindness, a parasitic disease spread by the bite of a black fly that breeds in fast-flowing rivers,” Petersen wrote. “In recognition of the importance and impact of this work, he and his team were recently designated a World Health Collaborating Center for onchocerciasis diagnostics—the only one in the world.”

Tom Unnasch, PhD, (first row, second from right), poses with a team of Ugandans employed to help with the collection and control of the black flies that spread river blindness. This photo was taken along the Aswa River, where some of the field work was done. (Photo courtesy of Unnasch)

Eliminating river blindness has been a driving force in Unnasch’s professional life. He travels to Uganda each summer as the chair of the Uganda Ministry of Health’s Uganda Onchocerciasis Elimination Expert Advisory Committee (UOEEAC).  The onchocerciasis elimination program in Uganda is funded by the Carter Center, a nonprofit group founded by former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn that’s committed to resolving conflicts, enhancing democracy and improving health.

“During one of my early trips to Africa, I saw a young child leading his father who was blind. The boy was wearing a t-shirt that said, ‘Let the good times roll,’ ” said an emotional Unnasch. “I knew I had to make a difference.”

And make a difference he and his team have.

River blindness has been eradicated from four of the six endemic countries in Latin America and is close to being eliminated in several countries in Africa, including Sudan, Malawi and Uganda. “We have made a difference,” Unnasch said, “thanks to the people on the ground.”

Unnasch is happy the work he and his colleagues have performed has been acknowledged.

“It’s nice to be recognized as an individual, but there is a large team out there that did almost all of the heavy lifting,” said Unnasch. “This award reflects the efforts we all have put forth.”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health