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  • Abroad experiences provide perspective for improving public health in Iowa

    Marcus Barlow vividly remembers his first science experience: second-grade pig-eye dissection. Barlow marveled at the eye’s sensory power despite its small size. That moment, he realized science isn’t limited to the laboratory — it’s the guiding force in our everyday lives.

    A second-grade anatomy lesson led Barlow to question everything and explore the science of his world. Volunteer experiences in Africa further strengthened his inquisitive spirit and ultimately led to a career in public health.

    Though he now works as program coordinator at Integrated Health Homes at Child Health Specialty Clinics, Barlow hasn’t forgotten that formative experience at the second-grade anatomy table. Every day, he applies that same curiosity in tackling the complicated, nuanced problems facing Iowa’s public health systems.

    SCI: What drew you to science growing up?

    MB: My first science experience was in second grade. I can remember dissecting pig eyes, actually. I remember being captivated by the small number of parts that make up the eye and their ability to create the images we see. That was the first time I got excited about looking at things with a scientific lens and trying to understand what was happening around me.

    I took more and more science classes all the way up into high school, where I can remember anatomy, again. We were dissecting cats, and in chemistry, we were taking the copper off of pennies. I learned to dig a little deeper and not just take things at the surface level. I began to ask questions, like why we can stop our car at the stoplight or why we burp and why we have hiccups. That created an idea in my head that I wanted to do something in science. I wasn’t quite sure what. On top of that, I really enjoy the social sciences as well. I enjoy people. I enjoy interacting with people. I wanted the merger of both of those things, which got me into the health sciences eventually.

    SCI: Was there a specific moment you realized public health was the right field for you?

    MB: It was definitely not my focus during my undergraduate studies. I didn’t know that there was a master’s of public health at all. I eventually went to study abroad in Africa for the first time, and it was in Tanzania for six months. While I was there, I was volunteering for a non-governmental organization called Guidance and Health-Based Care. I saw there were a lot of systematic problems. The Tanzanian government provides medications for people to get well, called anti-retroviral medication. But on the flipside of that, these people didn’t have enough food, and when you don’t have that food in your system, the medicine can’t do its job. So, it’s actually hurting people instead of helping them get better. There were large systematic problems in that society that created the negative health outcome.

    Another experience that I had was in Downtown Denver when I volunteered for homeless youth with AmeriCorps. I saw there were a lot of problems with drug abuse, drug paraphernalia and different factors that were making the youth, first off, feel uncomfortable getting the help they needed, but also feel ashamed and criminalized because of their addictions and other problems they were facing. It really came down to the fact that they just had a terrible start to their lives that snowballed into a larger, negative health problems. Those two items kind of got me thinking, “I need to go back and take a look at these larger systems that we have in the world and why we’re seeing really bad health outcomes because of them.”

    SCI: Can you describe your work as program coordinator at Integrated Health Homes at Child Health Specialty Clinics?

    MB: I work on Pella Health programs, and I also work on another program that’s called the Child and Youth Health Psychiatric Consultation of Iowa. It consults with primary care physicians to provide mental healthcare. We’re making sure primary care providers are able to diagnose mental health conditions in the state of Iowa. One in five children has mental health issues in the state of Iowa, and that statistic is the same nationally. We have numerous shortages and issues in child psychiatry. We want to keep people in their homes, we want to keep them where they’re at with their primary care physicians. That is kind of what I discussed earlier with the systematic, big problems that I saw in my travels. There are really big issues here in Iowa, too. We have a lot of systems that are becoming a problem. They’re creating some hard health outcomes.

    SCI: What’s one challenging aspect of working in public health?

    MB: Tom Harkin has said several times that, “Public health’s greatest enemy is that when it works, you don’t hear about it.” For instance, when we don’t have a measles outbreak like we’re seeing in Germany and Florida, public health is working, but no one knows it. That is the biggest enemy of public health.  

    SCI: What’s the most rewarding thing about working in public health?

    MB: I think a lot of times, people seek jobs or opportunities that when you go home at the end of the day, you feel like, “You know what, today I feel like I made a difference in the world,” and I know that sounds really cliché and corny, but I really feel that way because you can see it in patient outcomes and data. For instance, I know if I am doing my job and I am making sure that everything is coordinated in the Pella Health program, I can know a child out there in Mason City or Storm Lake got the services they needed to improve their health and their lives. That’s really rewarding when you hear things like that — when you can see patients are getting the things they need. Health is so all-encompassing on quality of life.

  • Interview with an astronaut

    By: Taylor Soule, SCI Communications Assistant

    What’s the best space meal? What are g-forces really like?

    NASA astronaut Clay Anderson answered your questions submitted via Twitter, and we added a few of our own at the celebration of Orion’s launch on Dec. 4 at the Science Center of Iowa. Anderson, a retired astronaut, completed two missions to the International Space Station. He joined the Iowa State engineering faculty in 2013. 

    Your Questions, Answered:

    SCI: What do you enjoy most about space flight?

    Clay Anderson: I would say zero gravity and being weightless. To float and play every day, even while you’re working, is quite extraordinary.

    SCI: What’s the best meal served in space?

    CA: I liked Russian food the best. I liked lamb with vegetables and pork with potatoes. American desserts were the best. There was a blueberry cobbler and a cran-apple dessert, which was really good. The Russian soups were really, really good.

    SCI: If you could travel anywhere in the known universe, where would you go?

    CA: I’d probably go to Spock’s home planet of Vulcan. That’s where I’d go.

    SCI: How do you cope with separation from family and friends during space flight?

    CA: NASA does a good job of providing you video-conference capability and Internet protocol telephones, so you can call people. Email was readily available. Today, they have social media, which helps a lot to communicate with people you don’t even know and share the experience. I love what [NASA astronaut] Chris Hadfield did to capture the imaginations of people, and I hope we continue to do that because those are the people who fund us.

    SCI: What are the g-forces like on reentry and takeoff?

    CA: The g-forces are really quite small, less than 3 for entry and ascent. If you weigh 150, you’ll weigh 450 pounds. It’ll be a little uncomfortable, but it’s not unbearable. In the event of an emergency landing on the shuttle, "a ballistic entry," they call it, you could pull for very short periods between 8 and 10 G’s, but it’s very short. Overall, the trips up and back are relatively easy. Now, I’ve never swung at the bottom of a parachute like some of my colleagues who came back on a Russian Soyuz, so I’d imagine that after five months or six months in space, that could be pretty disconcerting to your vestibular system.

    SCI: Do you expect astronaut training to change as we move toward the Mars mission?

    CA: It would be nice if we didn’t have language barriers. Those drive up training times and costs immensely. I certainly hope it would be more video-based training, where you can look at something and watch a video and then do it. When you start to travel from the Earth, the communication time gets much longer, and you’re going to want to be more autonomous in what you can do. It’s much easier when you can learn it through video rather than reading a bunch of words.

    SCI: What’s the most exciting science experiment you conducted in space?

    CA: We did several interesting ones. I don’t know that any were hugely exciting. The problem is that you gather data, but you don’t hear the results right away. We burned some things in space. Those experiments were interesting in that it could lead to better smoke detectors on Earth. I’m big on what the payback is for Earthlings. I required all my scientists who were having me do their experiments to tell me why a taxpayer should care, and that was hard for some of them to do because they’ve never thought about it before. It was really important for me to make sure people understand why their investment of tax dollars is important and what the gain is back here on Earth. I do it on Twitter and Facebook, too. I try to let people know there is a return on their investment. They just have to have the patience to see it.

    SCI: Why are you passionate about working with freshman engineering students at Iowa State?

    CA: With commercial spaceflight coming to the forefront, we need engineers, whether they be mechanical or aerospace. If I can excite them about engineering, specifically aerospace, for this case, I think that’s important. My goal as an instructor is to work on some new capabilities, new ideas and innovations that will allow Iowa State graduates to be considered a cut above some other graduates by virtue of their experiences. I am trying to come up with ways to make them think like astronauts. I’m not trying to make them into astronauts. I am trying to get them to think like astronauts. I’m training them to be thinkers.