From Africa to Asia and back again: COPH grad travels world studying vector-borne diseases

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Dr. Ryan Tokarz, who received both his MPH and PhD in global communicable diseases from the USF College of Public Health (COPH), had a childhood dream of being a marine biologist who studied sharks.

As time went on, the Lutz, Fla., native went a little off course, swapping biology for epidemiology and sharks for mosquitos.

The COPH alum now specializes in vector-borne diseases—everything from malaria to West Nile virus. He works at the Public Health Institute in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, as a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Global Health Fellow.

Tokarz works with the national public health department in developing preparedness plans and disseminating information about diseases and outbreaks in the region. He also assists the department in teaching and mentoring future disease outbreak responders through a field epidemiology training program and with disease modeling, helping to predict what diseases may occur in the future.

COPH alum Ryan Tokarz, PhD, far right, performing field surveillance for productive mosquito larval habitats. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Tokarz)

“I love the real-world application of public health, and Ethiopia seemed to be a perfect place to experience that on a continuous basis,” said Tokarz. “I also love the East African region of the world, and any opportunity to work in that area has always been something that’s appealed to me. This region holds a special place in my heart as it’s where I first cut my teeth in the field of epidemiology and surveillance. The people are wonderful, and the landscapes and wildlife are breathtaking. Any chance to be in that region and do what I can to help is hard to resist.”

As a post-doctoral fellow, Tokarz has also worked in malaria surveillance in Cambodia, and, closer to home, as an assistant scientist/manager of both the West Nile and Lyme Disease Surveillance Programs for the state of Iowa, both of which are located at Iowa State University in Ames.  

Tokarz came to the COPH after receiving his undergraduate degree in dietetics at Florida State.

“I had experienced health on a global level a few times through personal travel, and secondhand from a family member who has spent years doing work all over the world,” said Tokarz, who received his MPH in 2012 and his PhD in 2017. “With my health background and interest in how it functions internationally, I knew I wanted to do global health in some capacity.”

Tokarz set his sights on a graduate program with a respected global health program and ultimately decided on USF.

“I was very interested in the international components that were offered within the global communicable diseases track and decided to pursue that as a result. It worked out well for me as I was able to find the direction that best suited my interests, which are vector-borne diseases and community-driven interventions.”

One of the highlights of his time at the COPH was his travel to Uganda as part of an international field experience. The group implemented a community-wide health survey to assess the needs of community.

“I later returned multiple times on my own to conduct research and assist the community in the widespread malaria issue, which was one of the key concerns identified through this survey,” explained Tokarz. “I’m very proud to have been a part of it and even more proud of the work it enabled students to accomplish in the years since.”

Tokarz, far right, trains community members on how to differentiate mosquito larvae that transmit malaria (of the Anopheles genus) from those that don’t. Pictured with him is Andrew McKinnon (center), MPH, another COPH alum. (Photo courtesy of Tokarz)

Tokarz says some of the things he appreciated most at the COPH were his relationships with fellow students and faculty.

“The staff at all levels is amazing, and most of the faculty had an ‘open-door’ policy,” he said. “It was not uncommon to stop by a professor’s office and discuss course content or just life in general. This led to so many relationships, and it’s what sticks with me the most.”

Given the way the COPH faculty helped nurture his interest in global health, it’s not surprising that Tokarz says one of his proudest professional accomplishments was managing the West Nile Virus Surveillance Program at Iowa State, where he was able to mentor a team of undergraduates who had no background in the study of mosquitos or the diseases they carry.

“Over time, I was able to train the students to specifically identify all mosquito species within the state and to select those capable of disease transmission,” said Tokarz. “Observing the students learn and become confident with the various aspects of the program was extremely rewarding.”

For the near term, Tokarz will continue his work in Ethiopia and “add as much value as I can,” he said. Ultimately he hopes to become a professor of public health.

“As a public health faculty member, I can continue to work internationally on an array of public health issues while also teaching the next generation of public health professionals and integrating them into the world of global health,” he remarked.

Alumni Fast Five:

What did you dream of becoming when you were young?

A marine biologist who studied sharks

Where might we find you on the weekend?

Either relaxing indoors or doing an outdoor activity, such as hiking, camping, etc.

What is the last book you read?

“Moonwalking with Einstein,” by Joshua Foer

What superpower would you like to have?

Teleportation powers

What’s your all-time favorite movie?

“The Shawshank Redemption”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health