Our Alumni

On the front lines against a viral killer

Years after "Outbreak" inspired his interest in infectious disease management, epidemiology student Robert Coleman gets to play key role fighting Zika.

Robert Coleman, MPH '17, prepares a mosquito trap as part of a Zika Virus surveillance program at the Genesee and Orleans County Department of Health.

When Robert Coleman reflects on how he became interested in studying infectious disease epidemiology, he can narrow it down to one particular film that he watched as a youth.

“Outbreak,” says Robert confidently.

While all his friends wanted to become doctors or lawyers or engineers, Robert became enamored with a profession that he didn’t even know existed.

“I didn’t know what epidemiologists were or what they did at the time, but I remember seeing the actors portray epidemiologist in that movie; they were trying to solve a large-scale health problem and protect everybody. I thought that was very admirable and cool.”

Fast forward some ten years, Robert was working in Southern California as a personal trainer. Growing up as an athlete and as someone that enjoyed exercise, it was a good fit. After five years working in the business, he began to become increasingly interested in the possibility of going back to school.

“I realized, while going through recertification as a personal trainer, that I had an appetite for knowledge and learning. It wasn’t too long after I came to that realization that I moved back to Western New York to further my education.”

While he admits that there were a number of health fields that he was exploring, his memories of watching that movie as a kid came flooding back once he took courses in anatomy, physiology and microbiology.

“I knew that the UB School of Public Health and Health Professions was what I had been waiting for. I enrolled in the Master of Public Health program and I loved it.”

With a concentration in epidemiology, Robert began to identify factors that influence health and develop tools to sustain an environment that promotes health.  While obtaining a broader understanding of public health, Robert says that his favorite aspect of the program was the real-world, practical experience he received through a field training experience, a requirement of the MPH program.

“I conducted my field training at the Genesee and Orleans County Department of Health.  When I expressed to the site advisor that my main interest in epidemiology was infectious disease, he told me that they were just starting a mosquito surveillance program in response to the public health concern from Zika. It was a perfect opportunity for me to learn real-world applications to infectious disease surveillance.”

Like the famous Ebola outbreak that was central to the plot of the movie “Outbreak,” Vika virus quickly rose to the forefront as a public health concern on a global scale in 2016. The virus, which primarily spreads through infected mosquitoes, is of particular concern for pregnant women because the virus is linked to birth defects such as microcephaly, in which a baby is born with an abnormally small head and undeveloped brain.

“Zika was first discovered in the 1947 in the Zika forest region of Uganda,” explained Robert, “but in the last few years it has begun to spread to the Caribbean and the South America, which of course, is right on the doorstep of the United States. Because mosquitoes are the primary vector of the virus, my field training focused on mosquitoes surveillance and taking a proactive stance on monitoring for the Aedes Albopictus mosquito species, which has been known to transmit the disease. I’m happy to report that during my time conducting surveillance, no Aedes Albopictus mosquitoes were captured.”

Getting a mosquito surveillance program up and running is no small feat and Robert played a primary role in all aspects of the new program, including the use of a drone to better survey rural and wooded areas that are likely breading grounds for mosquitoes.

“I was in charge of developing a system to track our mosquito traps, helped identity locations in which to place those traps, and also identified mosquito species that were captured to see if the Aedes Albopictous was present. With epidemiology, data is also very important, so I created a data collection form to help track any of our findings. But perhaps the coolest aspect of the program was the implementation of a drone to help survey land that often times is difficult to reach, or even see, by land.”

Through all of these experiences, Robert says he not only learned a lot, but he also received tremendous support from those he worked with, which subsequently increased his level of confidence.

“I truly enjoyed my field training experience and having the opportunity to be as involved as I was really gave me confidence that I can be successful and overcome any challenges that may be in the future.”

Robert graduated with his MPH degree in May 2017 and was accepted to a one year fellowship through the Department of Defense performing respiratory disease surveillance at the US Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine in Dayton, Ohio.