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A Community of Scholars
Spring 2008  
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Xiah Kragie
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h Last summer, Public Health Academy member Xiah Kragie examined air quality in Beijing (above right). She credits ATSDR faculty mentor James Durant with teaching her the skill set she needed to conduct her research. h
A Community of Scholars
The Public Health Academy brings students together for interdisciplinary conversation and real-world experience
By Pam Auchmutey • Photos by Bryan Meltz

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 Not long after epidemiologist Devra Davis published The Secret History of the War on Cancer last year, Newsweek rated the book a "must read." Several RSPH students thought the same and selected it as this year's book club choice for the Public Health Academy.
     Ben Gehardstein was among the students who suggested Davis's book, which describes how industrial, political, and scientific leaders have focused less on preventing cancer and more on making money by treating symptoms and allowing sales of tobacco, asbestos, and other carcinogenic products. Last year, the students read Pathologies of Power by Harvard physician Paul Farmer, longtime health and social justice advocate. Gehardstein, a second-year student in environmental health, recommended Farmer's book as well.
     "Our book discussions have been the best way for the academy group to simultaneously create community and learn," he says.
     That's just what academy organizers intended when they established the group in 2006 to bring merit scholarship recipients together to better prepare them for careers in public health. These "scholars in action" work together to organize and lead group and school-wide activities and also study individually with a faculty mentor, who guides them through a research assistantship guaranteed for four semesters. Led by Associate Dean Kathy Miner, the academy is designed to promote a sense of community and interdisciplinary discussion.
     "The idea behind the book club was to start a conversation among students from different departments," says Miner. "Throughout the conversation, they start looking at issues and learn to keep current as part of their professional obligations."
     Paul Schramm, a first-year student grounded in chemistry, geology, microbiology, and public policy, values listening to students from different backgrounds. "They have degrees ranging from anthropology to biochemistry, work experience in everything from the epa to field hospitals, and many have lived abroad for some time," he says. "Interacting with them helps diversify my experience here at Rollins."
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Carolyn Vance
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h The Public Health Academy provides Carolyn Vance with opportunities to explore her passion for reproductive health. She hopes one day to operate a clinic like the Atlanta Feminist Women's Health Center. h
  Honing leadership skills

Like most aspiring leaders, Xiah Kragie is growing accustomed to thinking on her feet, having moderated the academy's book discussion with Davis via speakerphone. She first learned to push beyond classroom boundaries at the University of Maryland, where she earned undergraduate degrees in engineering and economics. As a founding member of a student chapter of Engineers Without Borders, she helped build a small sanitation center in Thailand. At the RSPH, she is learning how to better apply her engineering skills at large.
     "Water and sanitation are technically easy to learn, but the larger issue is making those systems work in the developing world," says Kragie, a second-year student in global environmental health. "I came to Emory to focus on the application and delivery of services."
     Kragie tested her public health skills in China last summer. Working with researchers at Tsinghua University, she examined air quality in Beijing as the city prepared to host the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.
     "I learned that Beijing appears to have actionable levels of arsenic in the air, primarily from coal," she says. Arsenic levels in Beijing were higher than those allowed in the United States. Chronic exposure to such pollutants is known to cause cancer.
     "My project looks at reduction of exposure," Kragie adds. "China could make a couple of policy changes in its coal process that would reduce arsenic exposure. My goal is to provide protection within the realm of engineering."
     She gained skills and insight for her project by working with faculty mentor James Durant, an environmental health scientist with the CDC's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Durant taught her the intricacies of air dispersion modeling and data reduction as they worked together to evaluate the public health implications of emissions released by a chemical plant in Mississippi. Durant has made it a professional goal to provide learning opportunities for students like Kragie.
     "There are a lot of challenges that you face in doing public health," says Durant. "One is taking what you learn in the academic setting and applying it in a real-world setting to discover what it is you need to keep learning. Having that practical experience allows you to identify areas of interest you might not have known about so you can come back and learn more about it."
     For her assistantship experience, first-year student Carolyn Vance took a programmatic approach to her health policy major by interning with the Atlanta Feminist Women's Health Center. Before she enrolled at the RSPH, Vance lived in North Carolina, where she worked in health services research. The experience piqued her interest in reproductive health.
     "I have a passion, but until now I've not had the opportunity to learn which populations seek services and why, how laws may affect vital services, or how certain areas may be stigmatized," says Vance of her work with the women's center. "At the same time, I hope to learn what makes a grassroots organization effective, how management responds to stimuli, and how traditional advocacy may or may not be effective for the populations targeted."
     With the experience she gains and her participation in the Public Health Academy, Vance hopes one day to operate a women's reproductive health clinic. Kragie is weighing her options after graduation this May. She fully intends to volunteer again with Engineers Without Borders. "I see opportunities for improvement from a public health point of view and not just an engineering point of view," says Kragie of the group.
     As the Public Health Academy matures, Miner believes the program will help set the RSPH apart from other schools. She sees other benefits as well. "Over time, these students will stay connected to us and each other after they graduate." 
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