The light-filled Sails Pavilion in the San Diego Convention Center was abuzz with APHA 2018 Annual Meeting and Expo registrants Sunday morning. Friends and strangers mingled at round tables after collecting their badges. Many scrolled through the APHA 2018 app and flipped through the program book, planning out their public health week.

Aziz SabettiAziz Sabeti was feeling a bit overwhelmed, a lot excited. A senior at the University of Guam, he is majoring in health science with a concentration in pre-physical therapy. His program has a couple of public health course requirements, which is what introduced him to the field.

Sabeti’s first public health endeavor was part of a class group project in which he and fellow students examined whether Guamanians who chew betel nut, or “pugua,” are less likely to visit the dentist. (Spoiler alert: they are.) Although pugua has cultural significance in Guam, there are health risks, including a higher risk of oral cancer.

Based on his class performance, Sabeti was selected to attend the Annual Meeting by his public health professor, who awards the opportunity to one student a year. “I’m very grateful for this opportunity to be here,” Sabeti said. “I feel very honored and very overwhelmed. I feel like I’m surrounded by very intelligent people, so I’m a bit intimidated at times.”

As he looked through the APHA program, Sabeti was surprised to see sessions on how public health connects to world peace and advancing society. “That’s really interesting,” he said. As a member of the Baha’i faith, he added, “we’re trying to build a divine civilization so I’m really interested in spiritual health. Being in public health, I can see there’s also very similar goals.”

Building partnerships and interestsApril Bell

The Annual Meeting allows attendees to not only make those connections between areas of interest, but it provides a valuable spot to find potential public health partners, said April Bell. “It sparks a lot of ideas and potential collaboration,” she said. In fact, at last year’s Annual Meeting in Atlanta, she “cultivated relationships that I know will grow into future collaborations.”

“I’m always super excited to be here because I always learn something I wasn’t expecting to learn, so this time I’m just wondering what it’s going to be,” Bell said.

Bell spent 10 years at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mostly doing HIV research, but she was also part of an anthrax investigation in Florida. Fun fact: Before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, anyone calling CDC with bioterrorism questions were routed to Bell. Later, she moved back to her home state of Indiana and managed the AMPATH Research Network at Indiana University. Now she’s working on a PhD in epidemiology through Indiana University — but while living at a friend’s house in sunny Alameda, California.

Jennifer ReissJennifer Reiss was looking through the Annual Meeting program for environmental health sessions, among other topics. A project coordinator at Baylor College of Medicine’s pediatric public health unit in Houston, Texas, Reiss is helping build a program that will help first-time parents in Texas with the stress of having a newborn, which will hopefully mitigate the risk of child abuse and neglect.

Reiss is interested in several public health issues. “If I could smoosh all [of my interests] together I would,” she said. Two of her interests do connect: how climate change affects vulnerable communities. Reiss grew up in an industrial part of Houston so she’s been aware of air pollution since she was a child. “And with [Hurricane] Harvey last year, it solidified my interest in environmental health.”

Advocating for people with disabilities

Donald LollarAlthough officially retired, rehabilitation psychologist Donald Lollar is back at the APHA Annual Meeting, continuing to advocate for people with disabilities. He returned for the first time in about six years after being invited to speak at a workshop on health equity and the World Health Organization’s international classification for children and youth with disabilities. He’s attended the Annual Meeting about 15 times.

Lollar practiced rehabilitation psychology for 25 years before joining CDC, where he was director of the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. Later, he became director of the University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities at the Oregon Health and Science University.

A member of the APHA Disability Section, Lollar has advocated throughout his career for more public health attention on secondary conditions for people living with disabilities. For example, a person with spina bifida who uses a wheelchair might develop a skin sore or a urinary tract infection, both of which are preventable. Not all secondary conditions are medical, though. Unemployment and social isolation, for example, should be considered secondary conditions of disability, Lollar said.

“What’s the responsibility of public health? We haven’t seen that as a focus because we are population-based,” he said. And yet, 20 percent of people in the U.S. have a disability. “There are people who are not comfortable applying all of their public health knowledge” to people with disabilities, he noted.

Finding optimism among colleagues

Sharon Starr Sharon Starr is also a longtime Annual Meeting attendee — she has at least 25 meetings under her belt. Starr is a nurse with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health who provides home visits to families with babies with birth defects. She offers “whatever the family needs and engages their strengths, moving them forward in their care of their babies.”

As she outlined some of the pressing public health issues of the day — improving air and water quality, improving vaccine coverage — she pointed out that these are the same issues society was working on in the 20th century.

“We’ve got the same amount of work to do that we had 25 years ago,” she said.

Does that make the work feel overwhelming?

“No,” Starr said. “Coming to APHA gets you to see that other people are doing parts of it. At work, you’re in silos. Here, you’re together.”