When Alison Sansone applied for a summer position with the U.S. Army, she thought she'd be doing something a bit risky, like riding in armored vehicles, or navigating through heavily forested areas to practice her skills of evading the enemy with a camouflage army combat uniform.
One year later, Sansone can say that she got what she hoped for--although her heavy armor consisted of a white suit to protect her from tick bites, and her exposure to the forest included gathering insects for research purposes.
Under the watchful eye of U.S. Army Public Health Command entomologist Ellen Stromdahl, the Aberdeen High School senior worked on a year-long project that examined tick populations in Harford County, Md.
"Ticks can transmit disease, and a single bite can cause harm to a Soldier if the tick is not removed promptly," said Stromdahl. "Alison's project can help local Harford County Soldiers see which areas to avoid during peak tick activity."
Sansone has just graduated from the Science and Mathematics Academy, a school-within-a-school magnet program in which academically talented students engage in challenging coursework that integrates science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, and emphasizes research and real‐world application.
Last summer, Sansone visited 17 locations in Harford County to search for ticks alongside Stromdahl.
The next phase of her project consisted of developing a map of the tick distributions in Harford County, Md., as well as incorporating a predictive aspect of the map that highlighted the likelihood of encountering ticks throughout the county.
One of the highlights of Sansone's experience with the USAPHC was the opportunity to be a presenter at the Third Annual Mid-Atlantic Tick Summit, which was held in at the U.S. Geological Service Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Bowie, Md., in January. During the conference, Sansone gave a speech before an audience of more than 100 tick experts that highlighted the findings of her research and increased public knowledge of ticks and tick-borne disease.
Although some mentors or organizations may not have permitted a young student to speak to an audience of experts, Stromdahl said the experience really allowed Sansone to develop skills that would benefit her in the workplace.
"She performed with poise, professionalism and grace," said Stromdahl. "And, most importantly, she learned a valuable skill of public speaking."
Her audience was equally impressed with her presentation skills.
"People kept inquiring about what university I attended," said Sansone. "I took that as a big compliment, as I was just a high school student."
Sansone was not the only student to be mentored by USAPHC scientists. Selena Snyder, another Aberdeen High School senior who is a member of the Science and Mathematics Academy, spent a portion of her school year with experts in the Environmental Medicine Program.
Dr. Coleen Baird, USAPHC Environmental Medicine Program manager, and Jessica Sharkey, USAPHC epidemiologist, worked on a project to study the issue of respiratory symptoms in military personnel who were exposed to the Al-Mishraq Sulfur Plant in Iraq after it caught fire and burned for 30 days during the summer of 2003. Snyder's project assessed the value of respiratory testing after exposure to such airborne hazards.
Both Baird and Sharkey said they enjoyed serving as mentors and giving back to the local community.
"We chose to mentor a student this year because we are interested in supporting young people preparing for a career in science," said Baird.
The opportunity to work with two scientists at the USAPHC proved beneficial to Snyder.
"With one mentor close to the start of her career at the Public Health Command, and the other near the end, we provided differing perspectives on public health in practice to complement the rigorous, hard science training at the Science and Mathematics Academy," said Sharkey.
Both Sansone and Snyder presented their findings at a seminar in late May. Their mentors were also in attendance.
Officials at Aberdeen High School said the mentorship experience really benefits the students.
"This rigorous program teaches students the skills needed to be leaders in the area of research," said Sarah Voskuhl, program specialist with the Aberdeen Science and Mathematics Academy. "It would not be possible to provide the students with this experience without the dedicated mentorship of STEM professionals serving as mentors."
Although these students had a busy senior year, they say they are grateful for the opportunity to work on projects that benefit Soldiers. Additionally, both students said they will never forget the valuable experiences they gained by working for a worldwide public health organization like the USAPHC.
"I am very grateful for this experience and could not have wished for better mentors," said Snyder.