UAB students visit nuke test site, TB sanitarium, other historic public health spots

Dennis Pillion, al.com

While many college students were donning swimsuits on their summer break, 15 graduate and undergraduate students at the UAB School of Public Health tried on contamination suits used for working with Ebola patients. 

The students were part of a 12-day road trip tour of the Southeast, winding from Birmingham to nine different sites across Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia to see public health professionals in action and learn about the history of their field. 

Stops on the tour included: a former tuberculosis sanitarium in Mississippi; the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina caused lasting public health impacts; the Centers for Disease Control headquarters in Atlanta; and a site in Baxterville, Miss., where the U.S. government detonated two nuclear weapons underground in the 1960s. 

Lisa McCormick, associate professor at UAB's School of Public Health, said she planned the trip to give students a broad view of the many different types of public health jobs and operations out there, and what it's like to actually do those jobs for a living.

"Students learn a lot of information in the classroom, but sometimes it really doesn't sink in until they get into the communities and see it and talk to public health professionals, people who have been working in the field for years," McCormick said.

"That's what we're trying to give them is that 'Ah-ha' moment where they are able to relate what they've been learning in the classroom to public health practice and working in the communities."

The trip also helped show the students how public health employees deal with real-life issues like budget cuts and lack of public enthusiasm for the work that is being done. 

"It was really interesting to kind of see the struggle, that give and take, back and forth of a public health department that's trying to fight for the health of the people of the state and sometimes has all of the odds stacked against them," said Claire Auriemma, one of the graduate students on the trip. "Sometimes we are a reactionary society and we don't necessarily value things like public health until there's an emergency and we really need it."

UAB masters student Catherine Toms also said the visit with the Mississippi State Department of Health was particularly enlightening, as she is considering the state health department as one of her potential career options after graduation. 

"That was really interesting, just seeing how they cooperate and coordinate things with nonprofits," Toms said. "Their budget has been cut repeatedly over the years, and yet they are really creative in finding ways to serve the public and keep programs open that would have to be closed.

"They're pretty impressive people."

In the first Alabama stop on the tour, the students visited the Poarch Band of Creek Indians' tribal health department in Atmore to learn about tribal health initiatives.

"We visited with the state health department in Mississippi, the city health department in New Orleans, and so I wanted them to see a tribal health department learn about its structure and its service delivery models," McCormick said.

The students then headed to Tuskegee, site of the infamous syphilis study that led to modern rules and ethics practices for informed consent and treatment of patients in research studies. The students also visited the National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care, located on campus at Tuskegee University, and met with bioethics professor Stephen Sodeke. 

"[The Tuskegee study] was something that students hear about in class all the time, but none of them have ever been to Tuskegee, and it's right down the road from us," McCormick said. "[Sodeke] talked them through the history and the legacy of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment from the bioethics standpoint and why African-American populations tend to distrust government and large medical research institutions."

From there, the students visited an animal diagnostics laboratory at Auburn University and then traveled on to Atlanta for visits at the CDC and the Carter Center to learn about President Jimmy Carter's initiative to eradicate guinea worm around the world. 

The group is scheduled to return to the UAB campus on Friday, and students have maintained a blog describing their experiences. 

"I think all of my expectations for what a public health department would be like or for what the mental health department in the state of Mississippi or for even what a nuclear detonation site would be like, all of those expectations have just been completely shattered and replaced with reality," Auriemma said. "And that has been eye-opening to say the least."

Full article.