“My practice is global communicable disease research and epidemiology, my passion is doing whatever I can to improve the health of marginalized populations and make the world a more fair and equitable place,” USF College of Public Health Ryan Ortega said.
Ortega graduated from the COPH on May 6 with a master of science in public health degree in global communicable diseases.
Before pursuing his MSPH degree, Ortega earned his bachelor’s degree in social work at USF and did field work for a few years before realizing that he wanted to do more with his career.
Ortega said that he has always wanted to help people on a larger scale but his job with social work was mostly working with individuals.
“I was feeling like I wasn’t being challenged enough and wanted more of an intellectual challenge, especially when I started thinking about my career in the long run. I knew it was time for a change and the idea of research really started to intrigue me,” Ortega said. “The idea of exploring the unknown and being on the intellectual frontier of a field, that’s what I wanted for my career.”
While researching what programs would be able to help him bridge the gap from social work to science, Ortega discovered epidemiology and enrolled at the COPH. A year later he transferred over to the Department of Global Health.
“I entered the epidemiology program at COPH and loved it, and haven’t ceased to love it, but after my first year I transferred to global health because a couple of advisors there really took an interest in me and were willing to offer me the mentoring relationships that I was craving,” he said.
During his time as a student Ortega participated in many research projects. He was even awarded a scholarship to fund his research on whether vegetation type and density surrounding the locations of catch basins is a determinant of mosquito production.
While working on a grant studying tuberculosis with research assistant professor in Global Health, Dr. Benjamin Jacob, Ortega decided that he could make this his thesis. He wanted to investigate if there was an association between active TB incidence among migrant farm workers and their population size.
“It was awesome! I think the thing I loved most about it was the process of constructing, developing, and optimizing models to answer that question,” he said. “We found no relationship, but we did learn that while TB is a problem in these migrant farm worker communities, they are not a reservoir for infection to the boarder populations most likely because they are so isolated.”
Ortega felt lucky to have had such great mentors, advisors, and professors who really invest in their students’ skills, experiences, personal growth and development.
“I have had some pretty amazing and outstanding teachers. I’m really grateful for people such as Drs. Novak, Wu, Boaz, Jacob and many others,” he said. “It’s so obvious that they take a real interest in their students and put a real effort into crafting the curriculum, making it into something that is compelling and interesting. They provoke students to want to learn.”
Ortega was also impressed with and inspired by his peers he has met over the years and the great relationships he has made.
“My first year here I pretty much lived inside the laboratory and graduate student lounge. The other students that were always there with me were incredibly driven and hardworking,” he said. “When you are surrounded by people like that, it motivates you in a certain way. It makes you want to learn and grow more as well.”
Ortega said that pursuing his degree at COPH changed him, “I graduated from my bachelor’s program not feeling like I knew a lot about what I had just studied. It wasn’t until I started my master’s degree that I found this new determination and drive to learn and grow as much as I could, and to really be good at something.”
One of Ortega’s favorite memories from his time as a student was being able to work with two of his best friends on the USF Health Healthcare Innovation Venture Competition. Participants had to create a new health technology that could improve people’s lives along with a potential business model for selling the technology.
“We came up a solar-powered autoclave so that you can use it anywhere in the world as long as there was sunlight, particularly in places where access to electricity is often limited or unreliable. After creating a small prototype and working with a local businessman on our model we ended up winning first place!” he said.
After graduation, Ortega will be interning with the Polk County Mosquito Abatement District along with beginning his PhD at the USF COPH.
“I have a great relationship with the director of the abatement district. He has a lot of data at his disposal and many questions that he wants answered regarding mosquito populations and their relationship to public health,” he said. “I’ll be starting my PhD and want to figure out how to blend the two and how to use what I’m learning at my internship to benefit my education and vice versa.”
After he achieves his PhD, Ortega wants to apply and be a part of the Epidemic Intelligence Service with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“What I love about public health is that I can do research. There’s an intellectual challenge involved and ultimately it is something that you can use to help people and benefit society,” Ortega said.
Story by Caitlin Keough, USF College of Public Health