Catching up with ENVS Senior, Rob Giordano
Again and again here in the Department of Environmental Sciences (ENVS) we are in awe of ENVS students and how they engage in scholarship on and off of Emory’s campus. Recently we caught up with ENVS senior, Rob Giordano, to find out about his research and extended lab experience in Madagascar associated with Professor Gillespie’s research. Rob’s journey over the past four years is marked with interesting twists and turns, beginning as a theatre major at Fordham University in Manhattan and ending up in the 4+1 ENVS BS/MPH program here at Emory. Rob’s experience is inspiring in its depth and the way he has maximized the opportunities available here in the ENVS department. We look forward to keeping up with Rob as he finishes his senior year, completes his MPH and continues his journey.
1. Describe your work and experience here on campus in Professor Gillespie’s lab.
Once I left Fordham and came to Emory I was very interested in finding a laboratory that was working on a critical issue in the environment, preferably one involved in global public health. When I heard about Professor Tom Gillespie’s lab, it seemed like a natural fit – I’ve always found diseases fascinating and the idea of trying to understand how they moved and existed within our environment appealed to me.
I started working right away on a project that was trying to understand the effects of anthropogenic disturbance on patterns of parasitism within wild chimpanzee populations in Gombe National Park, Tanzania. As time went on, I began to learn, understand and fine tune, the fundamental skills I needed to conduct my MPH thesis project.
Looking back on my first two years at school, I was quite ambitious. I saw every opportunity a chance to practice the skills I would need later in my career.
2. How did your research interests evolve ?
Growing up, there were very few things I did not want to explore. Perhaps my greatest struggle was deciding on which of my many passions to fully commit to. I was involved in everything from music and theatre to astrophysics and American history. It was not until the summer before my junior year that I decided I wanted to pursue global public health, with a focus on the spread of infectious diseases.
One of the many opportunities offered through the Environmental Sciences department was a trip to Namibia and Botswana to study the ecology of Namib and Kalahari deserts. Witnessing the reality of how particular global health issues, such as inadequate sanitation or the effects of having limited access to health care, inspired me to focus on a topic that would leave a positive impact on a community.
That next fall, I came back to Atlanta excited about the prospects of developing a research project and working on the beginnings of what would my master’s thesis on the epidemiology and antimicrobial resistance of Pathogenic Enterobacteria in Madagascar.
3. How did you end up in Madagascar and what was the research you were conducting?
It’s funny to think back on the actual occasion when Professor Gillespie and I originally spoke about Madagascar and the prospect of me going to work on a summer project. At the time I was working as his laboratory manager and we were meeting to discuss the progress I had made over the past month. I had casually mentioned that I was interested in applying to medical school at Stony Brook University in New York. Having grown up a few towns away from Stony Brook, it seemed like it would be a good fit given its rich history in medical research and infectious disease, plus it was right in the middle of my old stomping grounds on Long Island! To my surprise, Professor Gillespie collaborates with Professors Jim Bliska and Patricia Wright at Stony Brook on a Gates Grand Challenges project working to understand the ecology and epidemiology of gastrointestinal parasites as well as the resulting economic impact on the community.
In addition to all the other hats Professor Gillespie wears, he is the director of infectious disease at Centre ValBio, the research station where the Emory team is based in Ranomafana, Madagascar and he serves on the board of PIVOT (pivotworks.org) – a new international health NGO focused on breaking the cycles of poverty by working with communities to establish comprehensive health care services. The PIVOT model draws inspiration from Partners in Health and ever since I first became interested in public health, landing a position at Partners in Health has been, well let’s just call it my pipe dream. Given the context and my career aspirations, I was floored by the prospect of signing on to the project in Madagascar. Professor Gillespie and I agreed that this opportunity would be an ideal fit for me, and as an added bonus, I would have the opportunity to train at the CDC on the fundamental laboratory methods for the diagnosis of enteric pathogens.
Specifically, my project is aimed as screening for resistance associated with antimicrobials used for diarrheal disease in Ranomafana, Madagascar. In recent years, the Malagasy population has increased exponentially, effectively leading to a serious sanitation infrastructure issue. As a result, diarrheal disease has become the leading cause of mortality in children under five, and the second leading factor for increased morbidity across all age groups, second only to malaria. Only 34% of the rural population has access to clean water and 27% has access to adequate sanitation, effectively leading to high rates of diarrheal disease. Generally speaking, Madagascar represents a classic poverty trap system in which environmental degradation, poor sanitation, high infection rates and economic stagnation are all linked.
4. Your time in Madagascar culminated in your presentation at the Global Health Initiative (GHI) Symposium, tell us more about that.
So the work in Ranomafana was sponsored by a number of different sources, primarily through a grant from The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation’s Grand Challenges program. Additionally, I received support from Emory’s Global Health Institute and the poster presentation was part of the annual GHI Scholars Symposium held to showcase the global health projects conducted by students at Emory each year.
For me the symposium was my first chance to really talk publically about the work I had become so immersed in. I had only been back in the states for three weeks at this point, and all the culminating thoughts and feeling from the time I spent in Madagascar had still been buzzing around my head.
Over those five months, my thoughts and feelings on research, global health, NGOs and, generally speaking, science had changed. Nothing ground shaking or revolutionary, but enough to drive me toward a very clear set of goals. I was excited to not only talk about the research, but also talk about the issues plaguing Madagascar and understand the different perspectives and opinions of anyone who would offer one up.
I don’t know if I would say that the GHI symposium was the culmination of my work in Madagascar. In fact there’s so much more work ahead – this is the exciting bit. Currently, I am working on understanding the antibiotic resistance profile that persists in the human, livestock and wild mouse lemur communities in and around Ranomafana National Park using PCR analysis. It is my hope that the results from this study will eventually be used to inform PIVOT, an international health NGO aimed at implementing an integrated primary health care system in Ranomafana on the scope of antimicrobial resistance that exists within the villages. I believe that these findings could potentially provide new information on the magnitude and trends of antibiotic resistance, which could be extended to update treatment guidelines, educate prescribers and guide infection control policies.
When I transferred to Emory from Fordham University in Manhattan, I knew little about Emory. I had grown up in a small town on Long Island, and never really had the opportunity to travel further south than Pennsylvania. Moreover, I was a theatre/natural science major at Fordham – I studied sound design/stage management and environmental science – so honestly, my day-to-day was completely different in New York. Instead of spending hours in the lab, I would find myself in the theatre organizing rehearsals or working on sound cues for an upcoming show.
The last three years at Emory have exceeded my wildest expectations and dreams – as corny as that sounds. The way I view it, Fordham prepared me well for my crazy life at Emory. I quickly found myself involved with theatre at Emory as a stage manager and sound designer, introducing me to a group of people that I am proud to call some of my best friends. Not long after, my friend Julia and I got together to make an alternative radio show – Something Completely Different (don’t mind this shameless plug, but we're on Wednesdays at 9 PM) – for WMRE, the Emory Student Radio.
With all of that in mind, however, there is one thing that truly puts Emory over the top for me – aside from the outstanding staff and faculty, an exciting and immersive teaching philosophy, and all of the other opportunities I have already mentioned – it is their universal emphasis on environmental consciousness and sustainability. There are few things I enjoy more than hiking around in the forest. For all of the same reasons I find global health exciting, nature offers one the opportunity to be the explorer once more. As it just so happens, the patch of old growth forest in Lullwater seems to fill that niche perfectly.
I still can’t believe that I only have one more year at Emory. This spring I will graduate Emory College with a BS in Environmental Sciences and will have completed the first part of the BS/MPH program in collaboration with the Rollins School of Public health. As of now, the plan is to continue the laboratory work and data analysis from the Madagascar project at Stony Brook. Next spring, I’ll be graduating from Rollins with a degree in Environmental Health and hopefully moving on to a fellowship or internship – the CDC ORISE Fellowship and Teach for America are my top choices. Long term, I could see myself in an MD/PhD program continuing to work on tropical infectious disease. Although, I must say it’s ambitious - the goal being the Weill Cornell/Rockefeller/Sloan-Kettering Tri-Institutional MD-PhD program – the last three years have taught me that it’s best to assume nothing and be open to all opportunities. Hey, you never know.