College of Public Health and Health Professions
A Year of Innovation and Impact

Education

Emily Plowman, Ph.D., a professor and doctoral program director in the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions department of speech, language, and hearing sciences, was awarded the 2021 Landis Award for Outstanding Mentorship from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, or NINDS. She was one of eight recipients of the Landis Award, which recognizes faculty members who have shown dedication to superior mentorship and training in neuroscience research. Award winners receive $100,000 in direct costs toward an existing NINDS grant to support efforts to foster the career advancement of trainees. An internationally recognized expert in the field of dysphagia, Plowman established and directs UF’s Aerodigestive Research Core and is the clinical director of UF’s Breathing Research and Therapeutics Center. Nominations for the Landis Award were initiated by current and former trainees. Plowman’s nominators praised her as “a teacher whose passion for science and research is simply infectious” and “an empowering female role model.”

“I am humbled and honored to receive this award. Mentoring is unquestionably one of the most challenging yet rewarding roles of my vocation,” Plowman said. “When a student or fellow joins my lab and entrusts their learning in my hands, I see this as a tremendous honor and responsibility and commit to providing a multifaceted, comprehensive learning experience. Through the daily interactions, highs and lows, and inherent intensity of research, a strong mentor/mentee relationship is a close bond that parallels family.”

Dr. Emily Plowman with Aerodigestive Research Core trainees in early 2020.
Dr. Emily Plowman (front row, second from left) with Aerodigestive Research Core trainees in early 2020.

Service

Faculty, staff and students in the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions department of environmental and global health, led by Tara Sabo-Attwood, Ph.D., chair and associate dean of faculty development, cultural affairs and wellness programs, assistant professor Joseph Bisesi, Ph.D., and professor Anthony Maurelli, Ph.D., are using the power of wastewater-based epidemiology as a novel tool to monitor community public health. Launched last year, Gator WATCH™ is a comprehensive program of Wastewater Analysis for Tracking Community Health. It has been deployed in several water systems, including the UF campus, Cedar Key and Gainesville. Gator WATCH™ is being used at UF to monitor SARS-CoV-2 at a residence hall level and was incorporated as an essential early warning arm of the UF Health Screen, Test & Protect program.

Now, Gator WATCH™ is expanding beyond infectious disease surveillance to new areas. In partnership with the National Drug Early Warning System Coordinating Center, housed at UF and directed by Linda B. Cottler, Ph.D., dean’s professor of epidemiology and associate dean for research in the College of Public Health and Health Professions, Gator WATCH™ will be used to identify drug use trends on a community scale by measuring human excreted chemicals in wastewater at several sentinel sites across the U.S. These markers can be used to pinpoint “hot spots,” new drug emergence and shifts in drug consumption trends. In a second new project, the Gator WATCH™ team has partnered with the Southeastern Coastal Center for Agricultural Health and Safety, directed by J. Glenn Morris, M.D., also the director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute, to implement wastewater-based epidemiology as an approach to understanding community level exposures to pesticides that are highly relevant to the health of rural agricultural communities in Florida.

Andrew Rainey and Amber O’Conner, doctoral students in the department of environmental and global health, prepare to sample water from a manhole on campus. The Gator WATCH™ team collects samples from numerous manholes daily.
Andrew Rainey and Amber O’Conner, doctoral students in the department of environmental and global health, prepare to sample water from a manhole on campus. The Gator WATCH™ team collects samples from numerous manholes daily.

Research

The Project Extension for Community Health Outcomes, or ECHO™, Diabetes program empowers primary care providers to deliver best-practice diabetes care to their patients who are underserved. Funded by a $7.69 million grant from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, University of Florida and Stanford University investigators are implementing ECHO Diabetes in Florida and California to reach the most vulnerable patients living with diabetes and to evaluate the potential for improving patient-level outcomes. The Florida project is led by principal investigators Ashby Walker, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the College of Public Health and Health Professions’ department of health services research, management and policy and director for health equity initiatives at the UF Diabetes Institute, and Michael Haller, M.D., a professor and chair of pediatric endocrinology at the UF College of Medicine. The UF ECHO Diabetes hub offers Federally Qualified Health Centers tele-education for primary care physicians, real-time support with complex medical decision-making, access to diabetes support coaches for patient engagement, and access to an online repository of diabetes care resources. ECHO Diabetes is collaborating with more than 40 Federally Qualified Health Centers that collectively serve more than 100,000 medically underserved patients with diabetes.

In a recent article published in BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care, Walker and colleagues share findings from a pilot study designed to demonstrate the feasibility of an ECHO program focused on Type 1 diabetes and its ability to improve primary care physicians’ knowledge and management of the disease. After a six-month intervention with 27 tele-education clinics offered, participating physicians reported improved diabetes knowledge and confidence in diabetes care. The findings demonstrate proof of concept for the ECHO Diabetes model and represent a viable model to reach medically underserved communities that do not use specialists, the authors write.

Diabetes support coaches educate primary care physicians from all over the state who came to UF during the last in-person orientation, held in January 2020.
Diabetes support coaches educate primary care physicians from all over the state who came to UF during the last in-person orientation, held in January 2020.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

The national organization Coalition of Occupational Therapy Advocates for Diversity, or COTAD, presented its COTAD Chapter of the Year Award for 2021 to the Gator COTAD Chapter in recognition of their efforts to address issues surrounding diversity and inclusion within the field of occupational therapy. Gator COTAD Chapter, which is composed of about 70 University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions Doctor of Occupational Therapy and undergraduate pre-OT students, places a focus on the lack of diversity among therapy providers, including encouraging those from underserved communities to seek occupational therapy and related health care services, and/or empowering them to enter the field of occupational therapy. The group also educates other students about occupational therapy and its benefits, as well as cultural humility and struggles faced by marginalized groups. The Gator COTAD Chapter developed and implemented a number of programs and events over the past year. These include:

  • A Black, Indigenous and People of Color, or BIPOC, Mentorship Program between OT community clinicians and OT students
  • Shared events from other COTAD Chapters covering topics such as how OT can benefit the prison population, Latinx women in health care, and culturally inclusive activities of daily living such as different hair routines based on texture, head coverings and skin conditions
  • A cooking series highlighting dishes from around the world
  • A workshop supporting the LGBTQIA+ community
  • Workshops on medical terms in Spanish, Creole and American Sign Language
  • A panel discussion titled “Addressing Racism and Prejudice through the Lens of Occupational Therapy,” which was attended by more than 100 OT clinicians, faculty and students across the state
Angelica Rodriguez, Gator COTAD Chapter president 2020-2021, and Lindsy Mathew, treasurer 2020-2021, accept the COTAD Chapter of the Year Award.
Angelica Rodriguez, Gator COTAD Chapter president 2020-2021, and Lindsy Mathew, treasurer 2020-2021, accept the COTAD Chapter of the Year Award.

COVID-19

Infectious disease researchers and department of biostatistics faculty members professor Ira Longini, Ph.D., assistant professor Natalie Dean, Ph.D., (now at Emory University) and Yang Yang, Ph.D., an associate professor, have made several high-impact contributions to our understanding of COVID-19 with publications in journals such as The New England Journal of Medicine, Lancet and Science. For example, their findings have provided insights on the effects of travel bans on slowing the virus’s spread, patterns of household transmission, and socioenvironmental drivers for transmission of the virus at the population level. They have influenced public policy through several commentaries on issues such as core protocols for testing drugs during an outbreak, recommendations for safe COVID-19 vaccine trials, the importance of pooling vaccine trial data, and guidance on addressing emerging variants. They have also published COVID-19 vaccine efficacy estimates and several models forecasting COVID-19 transmission in Florida.

As members of the World Health Organization Solidarity Trial expert group, Longini and Dean have helped lead the design and analysis of clinical trials testing COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. The Solidarity Trial is a first-of-its-kind international clinical trial enrolling tens of thousands of participants across dozens of countries. Among the group’s findings to date is the discovery that four drugs that were explored earlier in the pandemic as COVID-19 treatment options — remdesivir, hydroxychloroquine, lopinavir and interferon — do not improve outcomes in patients hospitalized with COVID-19.

Dr. Ira Longini and colleagues describe the early, unnoticed spread of COVID-19 in a paper published December 2 in Nature. The findings offer important insights to help countries prepare for future outbreaks of COVID-19 variants, such as omicron, or emerging infectious disease threats.