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In Case of Emergency: Reaching Vulnerable Groups

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Alton Russell '14 (center) with TLC Information Network communications director Wil Glenn and Dr. Julie Casani, Russell's project mentor at the NC Division of Public Health.

Alton Russell ’14 (center) with TLC Information Network communications director Wil Glenn and Dr. Julie Casani, Russell’s project mentor at the NC Division of Public Health.

Alton Russell ’14 combined his interests in global health and in industrial engineering to fashion not only his self-designed major in interdisciplinary studies but also his capstone project this spring.

“An engineering degree alone was insufficient,” says Russell. “Problems of health demand solutions that are not only technically innovative but also grounded in an understanding of human factors, and a technically viable solution is useful only to the extent that it is compatible with cultural and political realities. I believed, and still do, the combination of these two degrees would offer a unique and useful preparation for making lasting improvements to health systems.”

Russell, a Park scholar from Wilmington, NC, began his undergraduate career as an engineer at NC State. He quickly settled on an industrial engineering degree with a certificate in healthcare systems; however, during his sophomore year Russell decided that he wanted to complement his studies with a second major. As he was interested in how political, social and cultural factors intertwine to shape the health of individuals, communities, and the environment, he worked with faculty to develop his self-designed major.

For his capstone project in global health and sustainability, Russell partnered with the N.C. Division of Public Health, a state public health agency that promotes health equity, disease prevention and a healthy environment. His project focused on the efforts of the NCDPH’s Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response branch, which collaborates with entities statewide to determine best practices for dealing with natural disasters, epidemics and other crises.

Russell worked with a new initiative called the Trusted Leaders in the Community (TLC) Information Network, designed to engage religious and civic leaders in disseminating public health emergency preparedness and response information. Network leaders will help deliver critical messages to their congregations and communities before, during and after an emergency.

Russell’s project was motivated by the notion that in order to have credibility during an emergency, messages are best delivered by trusted leaders of the community. He helped determine that some of the primary populations who may not receive critical health messages through conventional means are minority religious congregations, migrant worker groups and elderly living communities. Such groups share a history of cultural disenfranchisement that may inhibit members from receiving and accepting public health messages from more traditional sources.

Russell says that by capitalizing on the strong faith-based and civic networks in North Carolina, “the TLC Information Network will disseminate time-sensitive and potentially life-saving information quickly and efficiently.”

His role in the project was to develop and present a high-level proposal to regional public health officials. He also researched religious and civic leaders who might serve as partners and developed a prototype for the database that would store information on the network.

“I felt confident taking on this project because of my diverse learning experiences in and out of the classroom at NC State,” Russell says. “The various leadership roles I have had as a Park Scholar taught me the necessary time management and communication skills, and Park Scholarships’ diversity programming has helped me develop the sensitivity to effectively work with diverse groups.”

This article is adapted from a piece written by Laura Turner that appeared on the NC State Park Scholars website.

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