USF’s College of Public Health rising junior Mary Alao is the recipient of an Office for Undergraduate Research Research Excellence Award for her investigation of guinea worm disease, which she presented at this year’s Undergraduate Research Colloquium Awards.
The event was held April 6 in the Marshall Student Center and gave undergraduate students from many different disciplines the chance to present their work and receive feedback from research mentors and peers.
Alao was one of almost 500 students presenting at the colloquium, which is the largest undergraduate research conference in the state.
Originally from Nigeria, Alao’s family moved to Florida when she was younger, and her time at COPH has helped cultivate her interest in public health.
Alao said that before starting college, she was interested in pursuing international relations, but that her father encouraged her to think about the public health side of things. Once she learned more about it, she realized she’d be able to relate all of the global interests that she has.
Her project, titled “Examining the Progress towards Guinea Worm Disease Eradication: A Review of the Literature,” was inspired partly by Alao’s own interests and partly by her Communication in a Digital Age course, where she began working on this topic.
Guinea worm disease eradication is a good example to study, Alao said, because while there 3.5 million cases of this disease in 1986, the number of cases has dropped to around 20 in 2015.
When Alao received the news about her distinction, she said that she had been focusing on another assignment. Before she even opened the email, she was excited.
“I was happy,” she said. “It’s a highlight of my undergraduate experience!”
Alao said that her undergraduate colloquium experience has really solidified her interest in wanting to continue doing research through graduate school. Even though she was only a sophomore at the time of research, she said that she really enjoys how close the undergraduate and graduate public health programs are in proximity to one another at the college.
“They’re all within the same building, and I was able to actually meet and bump into graduate students,” she said. “I liked how open it was because it was easy to see what different opportunities you’d have if you go onto the graduate level. It was a more comprehensive experience, I think.”
She also credits her instructors at the COPH for helping to fuel her interest in public health research. Specifically, Allison Oberne, who taught her Communications in a Digital Age course and who Alao said encouraged students to present their research, and Deidre Orriola, who taught Alao’s Global HIV Issues course and who Alao said really inspired her to get into global issues.
“Their teaching styles really helped,” Alao said. “They were very enthusiastic about public health, and they were very committed to what we were learning about.”
After she finishes her undergraduate degree, Alao said she’s definitely looking into graduate school, where she’s interesting in pursuing an MPH or MSPH in the dual concentrations of epidemiology and global communicable diseases. As for her long term plan, she says she’d like to become an epidemiologist and work in some capacity with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization.
“I want to use my findings to start community programs or work hands-on in the community to really just see the full extent of public health,” she said.
Wherever she may end up, Alao said that she’s very grateful for the opportunity to present her work.
“It was really a great experience,” she said. “Doing a colloquium and meeting the other students who did research—it was my first time presenting there—it was a very fun experience.”
Click here for a full list of all of the undergraduate award winners from this year’s colloquium.
Story by AnnaMarie Koehler-Shepley, USF College of Public Health