Motivated by a desire to contribute to the greater good, environmental health major Itzel Vela Hernandez is learning how to apply scientific solutions to large-scale community problems.
B.S in Environmental Health, B.S. in Biology
What attracted you to a degree in public health?
I always knew I wanted to dedicate my career to something health-related because I knew that I wanted to help people the physical sciences often attracted me from a young age. However, being a health professional or a researcher did not completely fulfill my interest in doing something for the greater good—I wanted to do something on a large scale, to apply and create solutions to help whole communities. Public health incorporated both my interest in science and my goals of helping communities with big-scale projects.
Why did you choose your particular concentration?
I actually started as a Biology major because I was not too sure what major would help me approach my goals and interests. It was my BIOL1108 (Principles in Biology II) taught by Dr. Mark Farmer and Dorset Trapnell that helped me decide to pursue Environmental Health as a second major. As a result of their instruction, I began noticing how interesting and important it was for us to be conscious of our actions and how the health of our environment is directly correlated to our health. I made the connection with Environmental Health and immediately became excited to get involved with this branch of public health. In addition, I realized that this major involved applying science and finding solutions for whole communities, including my own in Mexico.
Do you have any volunteer experiences that were especially meaningful?
Last year my peers and I traveled to the Jefferson Flea Market to volunteer as Spanish interpreters for a health fair hosted by the UGA College of Pharmacy. This event was targeted towards the Hispanic community and offered free physical exams and AIDS testing, important educational information in Spanish, and doctor referrals. This experience was particularly meaningful because the turnout was extensive and consisted of people who needed or wanted health care, but could not go to the doctor because of language, economic, or social barriers. We translated for them and made them feel more comfortable. Due to this, many were able to get doctor and treatment referrals that they would not have received otherwise.
What did you do for your internship?
I was a student intern for the Rhode Island Department of Health, more specifically, for its Department of Environmental Health. My tasks were very varied. They included the research and development of educational materials on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances and HVAC systems in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances have been highly used in oil- and water-repellent products, including Teflon, water-resistant clothing, and popcorn packaging. These chemicals have been found to cause a reduced immune response, lower infant birth weight (can accumulate in breast milk), increased bad cholesterol levels, increased risk of thyroid disease, and are toxic to the liver. Although they have been banned from manufacturing, we still have many products in our homes that contain these compounds and they continue to be detected in our water and food. This is a particular concern during the pandemic because high exposure to these chemicals can be detrimental to a COVID-19 infection.
In regards to Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems and COVID-19, many people were worried that these systems would spread the virus even more. As a result, many were turning off their systems and actually making the situation worse. During my internship, we developed some HVAC technical documents explaining how to use HVAC systems to dilute and filter indoor air, so that they can be used in our favor during the pandemic.
I was also involved in tracking warning patterns for COVID-19 case spikes to help the state decide when it was appropriate to start opening up. However, my main project involved creating a preliminary technical report on a contaminated landfill that has been an issue in Rhode Island for at least forty years. The report examined the toxicant inventory on the site and health issues in the surrounding area, with the aim of finding a connection between these two factors. In addition to my department responsibilities, I had to fulfill a certain number of training hours —I obtained about 20 different certificates from these activities.
What have you learned from the internship?
I learned how to communicate with community members and peers about local and state issues. I learned how to research and compile scientific information for a real-life issue, and how to use this information to draw conclusions about community issues and plausible solutions. But I think what was especially meaningful to me was seeing how other areas of the country deal with environmental health problems and how they come up with solutions, especially when it comes to environmental justice. Having a true, professional experience was extremely valuable and I think everyone should be exposed to one as a student.
What was the biggest challenge faced during your internship?
The biggest challenge was probably not being able to be physically present on-site for my projects. Because a lot of environmental health relies on observation, surveying, and sampling, some information would have been clearer if I had been present. However, this was not a significant limitation and I think technology has helped so much to make remote work possible.
What insights have you gained during the pandemic as a public health student?
This pandemic has shown me how important public health is to prevent biological catastrophes such as this one. As a result of deficient funds allocated towards public health, the United States has been struggling with the enormous amount of COVID-19 cases and deaths. A successful public health system allows for successful emergency preparedness towards pandemics and other health-threatening catastrophes. The pandemic has confirmed the need for more social and political involvement in environmental health and sustainability, due to the fact that they are directly correlated to how the population responds to sickness.
What are your plans after graduation? Has the pandemic shifted your career goals?
After graduation, I plan to obtain a master’s degree in environmental engineering. After that, I would like to work for an environmental consulting firm or as an occupational health specialist or engineer. I don’t think the pandemic has shifted my goals. In fact, I think it has strengthened my motivation towards achieving my goals. Making environmental health a priority in our personal lives, in our communities, and in politics makes fighting with situations like the one that we are in less detrimental.
Posted on February 24, 2021.