If you had asked me a year ago what I planned to do for my practicum experience after the first year of my master’s program, I probably would have laughed and said that I was just happy to have finished my undergrad degree and to have survived the final few weeks of online classes. I wasn’t expecting to spend the past year fully remote, and I definitely wasn’t expecting to be working on a globally focused practicum from the comfort of my Chapel Hill apartment. What I did know a year ago, however, is that my passion for environmental health, clean water and sanitation, would drive me toward a career that allows me to work with communities on global projects for the purpose of improving public health overall.

Even as a child I felt a deep sense of belonging to the natural world around me – growing up in rural North Carolina, I always felt safest surrounded by trees and bugs and the smell of wet leaves. I felt it was my duty to protect this place that also protected me. I now know that our relationship with the environment is symbiotic: by protecting the environment and improving environmental health, we also improve human health. Perhaps the most important resource to sustain this human-environment relationship is water; without it, we would simply not exist. Global access to clean water and sanitation is of utmost importance; for this reason, I decided to take on this practicum opportunity researching interventions targeting sanitation-related behavior change in the developing world – particularly the safe disposal of child feces in the Asia-Pacific region. Poor child feces management is a public health problem of particular importance in this region, especially due to the high risk of enteric infections among children, whose immune systems are not fully developed. Some of the health outcomes associated with these unsafe disposal practices may include diarrheal disease, soil-transmitted helminth infections, and stunting. This project will involve collaboration between Gillings and the humanitarian organization World Vison, which works closely with communities most impacted by the health outcomes associated with inadequate water and sanitation. Thus, I will be exposed to real-world interventions that incorporate the type of community engagement that I want in a career.

My three cats – Grandpa (top left), Franklin (right), and Rosemary (bottom left)

My three cats – Grandpa (top left), Franklin (right), and Rosemary (bottom left)

I always feel proud to tell people that I’m working on my MPH at Gillings, the top public school of public health in the nation, though I never really know what to say with regard to what I actually do on a daily basis. I typically tell people that I work in environmental public health, which is usually met with an “Oh! That’s a really important field nowadays!” Which is especially evident in the era of COVID-19, but I would argue that public health is always important, or was perhaps even more important just before the pandemic as we failed to protect our most vulnerable from this deadly disease. Plus, “I work with child feces” doesn’t really make for good dinner table conversation.

Although I used to dread all this remote work, I’ve actually found it more rewarding to set my own schedule and goals. I also get to spend a lot of time with my cat and foster kittens! With three cats I’ve definitely gotten a lot of real world experience with feces management.

Feeling hopeful for a productive and rewarding summer!

-Lauren