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“The reason I wanted to be a nurse is I wanted to help people,” Jacklyn Morales says, “but I think this is just a different way.”

Jacklyn Morales

Morales, a Milwaukee native and senior at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, has indeed found her own path to helping people—both now and in the future. Once a first-year Titan with plans to progress through the College of Nursing, she made a pivot her sophomore year to the environmental health major offered in the biology department.

Having been fascinated by a microbiology class, she found environmental health to be where her passions led her. It’s a journey that now, in a year consumed by the coronavirus pandemic, has taken her into the much-needed world of public health department contact tracing.

“Environmental health is the science of human injury and illness prevention,” she said. “That’s so broad, you can do a lot with that. I think that’s why it’s so interesting to me.”

As she explained it, environmental health is very much about helping people—just not in direct patient style of traditional healthcare.

With the pandemic raging this summer, Morales spent several months as an intern with the Wauwautosa Health Department. Among her duties were contact tracing and some management of COVID-19 testing data, including entering negative test results in the state’s main database. After the internship wrapped at the end of August, she was brought on by the Winnebago County Health Department to again handle contact tracing and more data duties.

“I remember talking in epidemiology (class), if this ever was to happen,” she said, referring to a pandemic or viral outbreak, “it’s important to collect this and this and this. That’s literally what I do now.”

She will graduate in the spring and hopes to someday work for a health department, perhaps as a registered sanitarian. Before checking off those goals, though, she’s doing her best to help Wisconsin slow the spread of COVID-19, while gaining what hopefully turns out to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

While the internship—which she applied for through Area Health Education Centers’ Community Health Internship Program—was a requirement for her degree, the Winnebago County work is for additional reps.

“I started right in September,” she said. “I decided to just call them and ask if they needed help with contact tracing and processing test results, because I have experience with that. They didn’t even hesitate—they were like, yes, when can you start?”

Sabrina Mueller-Spitz

The hope is she’ll eventually be able to get involved in some work not so closely tied to COVID-19, like the restaurant inspections and other duties a sanitarian would take on. While in Wauwautosa, she had opportunities to work on projects related to the opioid crisis and getting messaging out to vulnerable populations.

Sabrina Mueller-Spitz is an environmental microbiologist at UWO and Morales’ faculty adviser. She said Morales was an upstanding student and her passion and enthusiasm for public and environmental health were clear.

She even asked the senior, who’ll graduate in the spring, to help recruit more environmental health majors because “she’s not only a good student, but also a role model for others.”

“Environmental health is a hidden part of public health. Most students focus on the clinical side of human health, not the applied side where environmental health sits,” Mueller-Spitz said. “There are many similarities, where those in environmental health directly impact the health of individuals too, but not one on one like those in medicine.

“Environmental health provides students with a highly diverse background and requires them to complete an internship before graduation. Those internships ensure students can be hired after graduation in to positions. One of the major reasons it’s a great opportunity for students is it trains them for a career protecting human health.”

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