Environmental health major and student ambassador William McGonigle has maximized his experience at the UGA College of Public Health to gain a broader view on the health problems he hopes to someday address as a physician.
“Health and wellness are a common unifier among all people; everyone has various health problems, despite any of the differences various people may have,” he says.
Bachelor of Science in Environmental Health (BSEH)
What attracted you to a degree and/or certificate in public health?
I have always been interested in other people and learning about their stories and traditions. To me, health and wellness are a common unifier among all people; everyone has various health problems, despite any of the differences various people may have. As a UGA public health student, I knew I would have access to classes that would allow me to learn more about the specific health problems certain populations face as well as provide training to prepare me to combat these problems.
Why did you choose your particular concentration?
I chose the Advanced Science and Pre-Med Emphasis in the Environmental Health Science (EHS) undergraduate degree program at the UGA College of Public Health. Upon entering college, I did not fully understand how the environment would have a large effect on individual and community-wide health characteristics. I was very intrigued after talking with fellow students and switched to this major. Additionally, I have always been happy that, on this academic path, I could take the classes necessary to prepare me to be competitive throughout the medical school application process, while still learning about interesting subjects such as epidemiology, health policy, and toxicology.
What do you consider to be the highlight of your time at the College?
My highlight of my time at the College was my EHSC 3910 internship in Puerto Rico with the Unidad de Control de Vectores (Puerto Rico Vector Control Unit). Supported by a grant from the Morehead Honors College, I was able to live and work throughout Puerto Rico. I learned so much about mosquitos and tropical diseases, while immersing myself in Puerto Rican culture – eating mofongo, learning to salsa, and working on my Spanish. It was an amazing opportunity and my College of Public Health coursework allowed me to be a prepared and ready intern with the unit there. Because of the ability I had to apply my knowledge in such an amazing environment, this experience served as the highlight of my collegiate experience.
Can you tell us more about your internship experience?
During Summer 2021 I interned with the Puerto Rico Vector Control Unit. During this internship, I worked throughout Puerto Rico, living in San Juan, Ponce, and Culebra. In these different locations, I worked on different research projects related to vector control, an important aspect of public health in a tropical environment such as Puerto Rico. I assisted in various ways, including working with the lab to identify mosquitos, cleaning and replacing traps in the field, and working with the community on educational projects. Overall, I had an amazing time and was so lucky to have this experience. I am grateful for Dr. José Cordero, head of the College’s Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, who helped me obtain this position.
What did you learn from your internship?
I learned so much about vector control and Puerto Rico in general. I grew in my knowledge of mosquitos, learning how to identify different ones from each other in the lab and how to control them and catch them in the field. Specifically, I learned about Aedes Aegypti mosquitos, a specific species that spreads dengue, Zika, and chikungunya throughout the island. In one project, I learned about Wolbachia bacteria and how it can be used to reduce mosquitos’ transmission of diseases, and in another, I learned about open marsh water management in a local canal. Furthermore, I was able to see the close connections between the public health agencies and communities required in implement public health interventions. I was also so lucky to get to learn about and involve myself in Puerto Rican culture.
What was the biggest challenge faced during your internship?
In Culebra, an island municipality of Puerto Rico, I was able to meet with an epidemiologist who had dedicated much of his time to the island’s COVID-19 response. Here, he told me that it is hard to help people without their trust. While I was working on my Spanish ability then (and I still am), the language barrier did sometimes provide a challenge for me in talking with the communities who were involved in our projects. However, it was a great position for me to be in to practice my Spanish for the future. As a future health provider, it further encouraged to work towards Spanish fluency for any patient who may only speak Spanish.
What activities/achievements/awards during your time here are you most proud of?
I was able to pursue a hand hygiene training project with a local elementary school with funding provided by a CPH Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Student Mini-Grant. I worked with fellow students Jessica Varnell, Kade Donaldson, and EHS faculty member Dr. Anne Marie Zimeri to supply Glo Germ gel to students at Howard B. Stroud Elementary School to simulate germs on their hands. Students from Kindergarten to 4th grade used this gel to see how effective their current hand washing behaviors were and how they could revise their hand hygiene habits to decrease the number of germs that they saw on their hands. We worked with the school’s faculty and administration to plan a great associated lesson for the students on microbes and diseases. With the grant, we were able to donate enough Glo Germ gel for all of the school’s students for the next three years. Leftover funds allowed us to donate cleaning supplies, as well.
My team received the Undergraduate Research Award at the 2021 EHS Student Research Showcase for our work on the hand hygiene project. Through the project, we were able to provide a fun and educational opportunity for young people, while collecting data that showed to us that the training was effective in reinforcing proper hand hygiene. While I started planning this project before COVID-19 became a global problem, the pandemic allowed this project to have a larger and more relevant purpose within the community.
What insights have you gained the COVID-19 pandemic as a public health student?
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed many different problems. For example, as I volunteered at a COVID-19 testing site and Piedmont Athens Regional Hospital screening patients for COVID symptoms, I saw more and more individuals coming into the emergency room from great distances. This helped me understand how bad the spatial inequality in healthcare access could be and these observations have influenced how I see rural medicine.
What are your plans after graduation?
I am currently applying to medical programs for Fall 2022 matriculation. One day, I hope to be a pediatric cardiologist and hold a role at a teaching hospital.
Posted on October 15, 2021.