Dual disciplines: Combining science and Spanish to help eradicate disease

Fulbright scholarship winner Rebecca Hermann majored in Spanish and Environmental Health. (John Eisele/CSU Photography)

Story by Kevin Waida

Rebecca Hermann is no stranger to unique surroundings. The Environmental Health and Spanish double major has already been abroad to two different countries during her collegiate career, and now is off on a new adventure: using her Fulbright scholarship to teach English in Colombia.

The journey for Hermann started with a trip to Chile. “It was a classic study abroad. I took classes, stayed with a host family. It was just a blast,” the senior said. Looking for a respite from the course load, Hermann also took a two-week hiking trip to Patagonia, which she described as “the most insanely beautiful place I have ever been.”

After her venture to Chile, she went to Honduras to participate in a research project on cookstove pollution, by monitoring the output of carbon monoxide and its effect on citizens that were using it. She stayed in a rural area with five other researchers, and their days often consisted of collecting data on the monoxide levels and then meeting with the citizens to discuss their findings. In between, they had to download all the data, which took up to four hours a day. “There was a lot of downtime,” Hermann says, “a lot of Netflix and board games.”

Giving back by teaching

Now Hermann looks toward her next journey of teaching English in Colombia. Winning a Fulbright scholarship is a big deal, but it was no surprise to those she’s worked with. “Skills can be taught, but a positive and hardworking disposition seem to be innate,” said Bonnie Young, a postdoctoral research fellow in Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences whose cookstove project Hermann helped with. “Rebecca was an excellent team member, eager to help in any way, offering humor, rolling easily with challenging conditions, and remember the bigger picture of the work, which is to ultimately decrease household air pollution and improve people’s health.”

At the end of the 10-month experience in Colombia, Hermann plans to pursue a master’s degree in public health, and use the experience she has gained through her international journeys to fight disease around the world.

“Environmental health teaches me to approach health issues with a broad holistic view and to focus on causes at the population level. After I graduate, I want to research vector-borne diseases, such as Zika, dengue and yellow fever, to improve awareness and prevention in hard-hit areas, such as Latin America. My goal is to earn my Ph.D. in epidemiology and to improve global health, especially in response to epidemics that will be exacerbated by climate change,” Hermann said.

Another CSU student, Bill Roberts in the Department of Occupational Therapy, also won a Fulbright and will conduct his Ph.D. dissertation research in Trinidad and Tobago.

Being bilingual opens doors

Part of the equation for Hermann’s success in her ventures abroad has been the training in Spanish she has received through her coursework at CSU. “It gives me a creative outlet outside of all the science,” Hermann notes. And because she spoke Spanish, Hermann was able to directly interact with the participants of the cookstove study, answering questions, offering support and forging connections. “When you learn a second language, it opens up doors that weren’t available before,” said Spanish professor Andrea Purdy. “You bring with you a culture and understanding of other people around the globe, it makes you a better citizen of the world. Rebecca worked hard at the language because she knew that skillset could apply to her primary studies,” said Purdy.

Although there is one thing Hermann says she wishes she would have studied a little more: “I wish I would have learned how to say, ‘What’s the WiFi password?’”

Fulbright application info

Graduating seniors and graduate students interested in applying for a Fulbright student award should contact Mary Swanson in TILT, mary.swanson@colostate.edu, (970) 491-2185. The application deadline for the 2018-19 cycle is Sept. 1.