Student pairs public health and preparedness

DMU students participated in a mass casualty drill at the Des Moines International Airport.
Cynthia James and other DMU students participated in a mass casualty drill at the Des Moines International Airport. “You’ve got to be ready” is James’ mantra.

Cynthia James was working on public health issues years before they were considered “public health.”

Now a student in DMU’s master of public health program, James delved into farm policy issues as a member of two congressional staffs before President Bill Clinton appointed her to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to focus on pesticide policy, organic food labeling and water quality. Then the fast-food chain Jack in the Box launched a promotion in the early 1990s of its “Monster Burger” — with the unfortunate slogan, “So good it’s scary!” — which, due to the presence of the Escherichia coli bacterium in many of the improperly cooked patties, sent more than 170 people to the hospital and caused the deaths of four children.

“Overnight, we were thrown into the issue,” James recalls. “It was a jarring foray into how important the issues of safe food handling are and their intersection with public health.”

Years later, after being a stay-at-home mom, running a Montessori school and moving with her family from Washington, DC, to central Iowa, James became an education aide in the Des Moines Public Schools and decided to pursue her interest in public health. This time she’s impassioned by emergency preparedness and factors that contribute to risky behaviors.

She gained experience in the former as a licensed emergency care assistant, including at the annual fall bonfire at Texas A&M University, where she earned her undergraduate degree in 1989.

“Students would fall from significant heights and get splinters in their eyes and other injuries,” James says. In fact, on Nov. 18, 1999, the bonfire’s 60-foot-high tower of logs collapsed, killing 12 students and injuring 27 others. “I still have that very strong interest in emergency medical response. I don’t want people to get hurt, but if they do, I want to be there to help.”

Cynthia James helped organize an emergency preparedness drill for DMU students.For her internship required for her M.P.H. degree, James worked with the Dallas County, IA, emergency preparedness director, participated in a mass casualty drill at the Des Moines International Airport, wrote a series of articles in the Dallas County News to mark September as National Preparedness Month, and attended a summit on the topic.

“In emergency preparedness, you have to be willing and content to know you may never see whether your plan would work,” she says, “but you’ve got to be ready.”

For her M.P.H. capstone, James wants to conduct primary research in behavioral risk to better understand “why people make choices that hurt them.” Working as an education aide, she sees the poor food and beverage choices students make, including energy drinks that often contain high levels of caffeine, sugar and questionable blends of herbs and other ingredients.

Concerned about their availability in DMU campus vending machines, James is seeking evidence on whether energy drinks are harmful so that University students can make “informed decisions” on whether to consume them. She surveyed osteopathic medical students on their consumption patterns and is conducting a literature review on the beverages’ health risks. Her capstone project, under way, may include production of an informative brochure, a lunch-and-learn in the DMU wellness center and an article for submission for publication.

“I really feel that for students going on to practice medicine, who may be working with youth and cardiac and diabetic patients, such products carry risk. That’s a question that should be asked,” says James, who looks forward to a career in health care and public health policy. “I wanted to do a capstone project that is meaningful.”