Like an antibiotic rapidly flowing through the blood stream to combat an infection, Whitney Callaghan ’17 & ’21 has used her knowledge to help fight the spread of diseases in Northern New York.
The SUNY Potsdam alumna took her degree in community health and parlayed it into a career with the St. Lawrence County Department of Public Health—an especially meaningful position in the wake of the COVID-19 global pandemic.
“I work at reporting and investigating the infectious diseases that are state reportable,” Callaghan said. “A couple examples of those are Lyme disease, a tick-borne illness, and giardia, a disease that you can get from untreated water. I call and I ask questions and I report to the state.”
Right now, her role is focused on the important task of contact tracing after someone tests positive for COVID-19. “Once we get all of the information from that investigation, I would be one of the people that follows up on the contacts that we were given,” Callaghan explains.
Despite working full-time, she is also pursuing a master’s degree in community health at SUNY Potsdam. “I always wanted to get my graduate degree, and I thrived at SUNY Potsdam, so I decided to come back,” she said. With an increased workload associated with the global pandemic, Callaghan seeks to find the delicate balance between her job with the county and her graduate work. It helps that she’s always been good at time management, as well as discovering stimulating ways in which to study. “Sometimes for me it’s having ‘Lord of the Rings’ or ‘The Hobbit’ in the background. That’s what helps me write a paper,” she said.
An interest in studying infectious diseases, coupled with a passion for teaching, led her to pursue two degrees through SUNY Potsdam’s Department of Public Health & Human Performance. Whether it was her “eye-opening” infectious disease class with instructor Richard Merchant, or a communications class with Dr. David Frego, Callaghan has always been surrounded by supportive faculty. “It’s a very close-knit campus, and they have a really good student to professor ratio,” she said. “The professors are always there to talk to you and help you out. I love the classes.”
As an undergraduate student, she remembers struggling on a paper in her program planning class, and then taking the important step of meeting with her professor one-on-one. “Dr. Kelly Bonnar was always very influential, and she helped me realize that I can step out of my comfort zone and ask the questions needed for me to succeed,” she recalled.
Out-of-the-classroom experiences also proved to be immensely important, like her semester-long internship at Planned Parenthood in Saranac Lake. Her primary role involved educating youth about sexual assault prevention. She also completed a research project examining the risk factors for chlamydia in St. Lawrence and Franklin County, and interviewing people about prevention methods. An internship with the Franklin County Department of Public Health rounded out her real-world training.
Then in January 2017, Callaghan traveled to Cienfuegos, Cuba, with other students in her Public Health of Cuba course. She took classes at the University of Cienfuegos, toured an urgent care center, and learned about the history of Cuba. The trip gave her a glimpse into the Caribbean island’s healthcare system, which emphasizes the importance of preventative care—an approach that really resonated with Callaghan.
In January 2019, she had the most impactful experience of her life during a service trip to Tanzania, Africa. For two weeks, she worked with a humanitarian organization on the shores of Lake Eyasi, assisting a small village of women who were either widowed or had been abandoned by their husbands. Water issues in the village raised concerns for her, and although a new well had been installed, there were issues with the water quality at a local school. With an orange color and sediment in the water, Callaghan wanted to see if there was a solution. “We had a solar-powered chlorinator, but because there was so much sediment in the water, it wasn’t going to help because it can’t kill anything that’s attached to sediment,” she explained.
Callaghan planned to return to the village in the spring of 2021 for a graduate-level internship focused on improving the water issues, teaching proper hygiene and providing safe sex education—but her travel arrangements were canceled due to the global pandemic. She still hopes to return when it is safe to do so.
From Tanzania to Potsdam, Callaghan has seen the impact of healthcare initiatives on the local and global levels. Her numerous hands-on learning experiences—dovetailed with her classes at SUNY Potsdam—have given her the tools needed for success as she continues to combat the spread of COVID-19 through her work with the county health department. “I love SUNY Potsdam,” she said. “I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”
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Article and photos by Jason Hunter