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UNF professor reveals her passion for the field of public health

UNF professor Dr. Amber Barnes, assistant professor of public healthDr. Amber Barnes, assistant professor of public health, found her passion for public health in a roundabout way. The Illinois native changed majors several times, then moved to Florida after earning her bachelor’s degree and planned to pursue law. She says, it was a "serendipitous mistake," and after one year, discovered the Master of Public Health degree at UNF and applied. By the end of her first semester, she was hooked. Now, she teaches students and works alongside her former professors as a colleague. During her free time, she enjoys hiking, kayaking, gardening, cooking for family and friends, making soap and making hand-built pottery. Also, she's currently reading “Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter” by Ben Goldfarb.
What made you want to go into a career teaching public health? How did you get started?
After I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, I moved to Florida to pursue a law degree — a serendipitous mistake. After only attending a year, I did some soul-searching and found the Master of Public Health degree at UNF and applied. By the end of my first semester, I was hooked. The field of public health brought together many of my favorite things — science and investigation, disease prevention and control, writing and communication, health advocacy and policy, and community health promotion. As I continued to learn through work experiences and advanced training, more opportunities appeared. When I heard there was a chance to return to UNF and collaborate with students and colleagues in the Department of Public Health, I couldn’t let it pass.
What do you find most exciting and rewarding about your field of study?
You can pivot into new areas of research or response as emerging trends and technologies arise or as novel challenges appear. Personally, my research uses the One Health approach, which simultaneously considers the health of people, animals and their shared environment. This allows me to work with collaborators and partners from many different sectors and disciplines. It has also taken me across the globe to meet with community members and stakeholders from a variety of backgrounds and cultures. Being able to meet and learn from local leaders and community experts has been invaluable to my understanding of disease exposure and risk and to try to work jointly on appropriate prevention and control strategies.
Describe your teaching style and philosophy.
I want my students to feel confident in their abilities but also in asking questions. I try to invite students to be curious and explore. I hope they grow inside the classroom, in higher education and in the public health profession. For first-generation students like me, sometimes it takes encouragement and a reminder that you are here because you can do the work and you can do the work well. No one is sitting in that classroom that doesn’t belong in that space.
What are your current research interests?
I’m engaged in a couple of One Health studies. My current field work involves collecting insect vectors (i.e., flies and cockroaches) for analysis of zoonotic food and waterborne parasites. We are examining the presence or absence of these parasites in the insects captured around animal enclosures and restaurant areas. We’ll also administer a survey to understand the knowledge, attitudes and practices of animal care teams, volunteers and hospitality workers. Our aims are to determine: a) whether the parasites are present at the site; b) where the parasites exist and which animals or people are at risk of exposure; and c) if there are gaps in human education or protective behaviors at the site. We hope to provide our partner site with targeted prevention and control strategies to safeguard human and animal health and student-designed training to address risky behaviors among staff and volunteers.
How do you engage your students?
Through the Coastal One Health and Zoonoses (COHZ) lab, I supervise student volunteer researchers on my ongoing One Health-related projects and try to foster their own passions by supporting independent research. Inside the classroom, I work to promote diverse thoughts and insights by asking students to write personal reflection essays, share insights through case studies, learn from one another during structured in-class discussion groups, conduct their own research on a topic of their choosing and demonstrate evidence-based research and science writing skills.
What do you think are the most important attributes of a good instructor?
Patience, compassion and a great sense of humor.
What do you like best about teaching at UNF?
Our University excels at providing incredible resources and opportunities to students, staff and faculty while maintaining a people-centered approach. Colleagues and students at UNF truly care about one another. It doesn’t hurt that our campus and surrounding preserve is gorgeous.
What other jobs have you had besides teaching at UNF?
I have done it all. From waiting tables to substitute teaching to research projects as an assistant and then as the team leader — I’ve done it all. Also, I’ve been an infectious disease epidemiology fellow, polio eradication consultant, nanny and as a consultant addressing issues surrounding human trafficking. These experiences have helped to shape me in some way or another, either personally or as a Public Health professional.
What awards or honors have you received that you’re most proud of?
My favorite awards are the emails, cards and tokens of appreciation that I have received from students and colleagues over the years. They are treasured.
What will be your role as a member of the Guidance Development Group for Traditional Food Markets? What are your goals as a member of this group?
Our goal as a group is to use the science and evidence-based research, coupled with our individual knowledge and expertise in the subject matter, to come up with culturally competent and responsive guidance for how to host traditional food markets successfully and safely within global communities. We must balance the needs of community members with the up-to-date science on food safety protocols, zoonotic disease prevention, worker and consumer protections, environmental hygiene and social and economic considerations. 
What is one thing your colleagues may not know about you?
I met my husband on a dating app. He was my first and only date from the site. Success!