| by Christopher Donohue

Portrait of Sam Byrne

When asked about his time at Middlebury thus far, Sam Byrne grinned widely, and, with enthusiasm, relayed it has been a “joy” to have the opportunity to teach public health at the undergraduate level. Byrne is an assistant professor of biology and global health, entering the Middlebury community this fall as one of nine new tenure-track faculty members.

Byrne comes from St. Lawrence University, where he taught in the Department of Environmental Studies. He received his BA from Hampshire College and obtained an MS and Ph.D. during his studies at the University of Albany School of Public Health. He continues to teach Principles of Epidemiology in the Spring, after the class’s debut this past Fall. 

Byrne first became interested in the relationship between human health and environmental factors while studying for his undergraduate degree at Hampshire College. So interested, that he ended up designing his own major: a conglomerate of health, environment, and culture studies that he labeled as the study of “human ecology.” Byrne remembered “trying to get at the health of a population in a bunch of different ways” before he even realized the concept of public health was a specified field. 

After earning his BA, he “randomly moved to Alaska,” finding work at the non-profit Alaska Community Action on Toxics. He worked on toxic substance exposures in indigenous communities, where he learned how to identify and mitigate risk in rural, indigenous communities. This all cascaded, he recalled, into the realization that he needed to refine and develop these practices at graduate school. As he progressed through his studies at the University of Albany School of Public Health, he continued to work with these Alaskan communities, focusing on the decreasing safety of traditional foods due to pollution. Byrne took pride in his research team’s approach in Alaska, where they prioritized these communities’ “goals, fears, and desires.” Instead of focusing on the traditional route of solely “getting a publication,” Bryne remembered his team’s ability to “meaningfully incorporate” the people being affected by the studies. The Global Health program is benefitting from Prof. Byrne’s experience with this type of research, known as Community-Based Participatory Research, which represents the gold standard for equitable and ethical engagement of the community under study in the research process. 

When asked about how his educational and work experience has helped shape his understanding of the current COVID crisis, Byrne states that in many ways, “it’s a textbook pandemic” in the virus’s progression and adaptation to our behavior. However, he never could have predicted the pushback to “vaccination and basic public health measures,” citing that almost all models of pandemics before this “assumed that we would be much better” at these interventions. Byrne concluded that we have a lot of work to be done in “building basic trust in public health infrastructure.” 

At Middlebury, Byrne emphasized the uniqueness of the college’s strong foundation in public health, noting that that “doesn’t exist in a lot of places, especially at the undergraduate level.” He shares that it’s particularly fitting at a liberal arts institution, as global health studies is a “crazy mismash” of all kinds of skill sets, and is fundamentally interdisciplinary. Since arriving, he’s loved interacting with the students of Middlebury – wowed by their constant engagement, interest, and genuine presence in the classroom. He’s been surprised, he remarked, “by the level of engagement,” where students are always having that “next question.” 

Reflecting on the Global Health department’s potential for evolution in years to come, Byrne says that there is both the student demand and a general consensus within the department to build Global Health into its own major at Middlebury over the long term. He claims that the department is building both the “momentum and the pieces” to attain this, while adding that achieving this goal is still years away. 

Byrne is looking forward to fulfilling his research plans in the future at Middlebury. He has received a research grant award to continue studying the environmental health of indigenous communities in Alaska, particularly in the frame of military contamination. He adds that this could be a potential opportunity for student involvement “once the data comes in,” he noted, with fingers crossed. Additionally, Byrne commented that this summer he hopes to explore the effects of fish consumption advisories that have been placed on the Hudson River fish declared “contaminated enough to pose a cancer risk.” Byrne started building this research idea a couple of years ago, when preliminary research found that the “regulatory structure isn’t working.” 

Finally, Byrne mentioned that “there is a ton of great opportunities to do epidemiology on publicly available data.” He underscored how there are “so many cool questions” to explore, and that he would be happy to work with students on this research pursuit. Global Health students have already expressed appreciation for Byrne’s teaching and expertise, and are thrilled to have epidemiology – the core methodology of public health – offered regularly as an undergraduate course.

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This article was featured in the Winter 2022 Global Health Newsletter.