An ecology graduate from the University of Delaware and former Peace Corps volunteer has beaten hundreds of competitors from around the world to a $12,500 scholarship by the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) and moved to London to pursue her dream of tackling global public health challenges.
Sara Laskowski, 24, who grew up in Aberdeen and graduated from the Science and Math Academy in 2009 (the SMA is where she became interested in ecology and environmental sciences) studied ecology at the University of Delaware and is living in London to complete a one year master's course in One Health at the RVC, the largest and longest-established vet school in the English-speaking world.
One Health is the principle which recognizes the vital importance of greater cooperation between human medicine, veterinary medicine and environmental and social sciences in the fight against today's major diseases – such as Ebola, influenza, HIV and Zika. Laskowski's scholarship enables her to consider the driving forces like international travel and trade, agricultural practices, climate changes, demographic pressure and environmental pollution behind these diseases.
The program is offered through RVC and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
"Both schools are research universes recognized around the globe and are consistently ranked in the top of their fields," Laskowski said in an email.
Her coursework is intense, she said, but it has been a pleasure.
"I have learned so much during the year and have become interested in many unexpected areas. The One Health masters is inter-disciplinary – my colleagues range from social science backgrounds with work experience in UK's HIV clinics, to a nurse with clinical experience in Nigeria, to an American with 15 years' experience in veterinary practice. We have learned a lot from each other," Laskowski said. "It is an amazing opportunity to be a student at these schools and to be taught by researchers leading exciting new advancements in their fields. It was a great honor to receive the scholarship and I have felt very grateful to be surrounded by such motivated individuals from around the world."
Laskowski has extensive first-hand experience of the global public health field, having served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guinea, where she promoted agroforestry practices. She also worked for the International Rescue Committee in Sierra Leone for 18 months during the Ebola outbreak.
"During my time in Sierra Leone I witnessed errors, gaps and misinformed approaches to the response and recovery transition to Ebola. This experience inspired me to study One Health, which I hope will empower me to tackle future public health emergencies effectively and introduce systems that will prevent a mass-scale outbreak like Ebola from occurring again," Laskowski said.
The experiences she had during the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa undoubtedly shaped her career goals and who she is as an individual, Laskowski said.
"The colleagues I worked with and alongside were a huge inspiration. But equally inspiring were the errors and gaps and questions I had during this period," she said. "It was a desire to answer these questions and put names to things I witnessed that encouraged me to return to school to gain the technical skills to continue working towards the prevention of future public health emergencies."
Laskowski was attracted to the course, jointly delivered by the RVC and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, because it is "taught by two world-leading universities" and she could not find a "similar arrangement in the U.S."
"I soon realized that I could get a master's degree in one year from two very reputable institutions, as opposed to spending two years in the U.S. With no background in animal health or veterinary science, I wasn't familiar with the RVC, but from my research I quickly realized the important role they play in promoting the One Health approach."
Having beaten hundreds of applicants to the international scholarship, Laskowski is based in Peckham, South London, and splits her time between the RVC's Camden campus and LSHTM's Bloomsbury campus.
"I love being a student at the RVC because you're surrounded by technical experts and you have access to the University of London's community, and all the perspectives their professors and students bring to the table. I also really enjoy the problem-based learning approach used in the One Health course, which gives us the opportunity to apply what we are taught to real life scenarios," Laskowski said.
She has embraced the experience and has a jam-packed schedule. In her first semester at the RVC Laskowski participated in Innovative Food Systems Teaching and Learning, a multi-institution post-graduate learning community working to tackle issues with existing food systems.
"This community has allowed me to apply what I'm learning in my modules at RVC to sustainable food systems, deepening my knowledge, while also broadening it through interaction with other post-graduate students from a variety of programmes and institutions," she said.
"The RVC Scholarship has allowed me the freedom to use my time outside of the classroom to continue learning. There's so many more things that I want to do than I have time to, but I am able to attend several evening events a month. I recently went to the One Health Day held at the RVC and a debate on the future of global health," she said.
The event was chaired by Professor Stuart Reid, principal of the RVC and expert in anti-microbial resistance, and Professor Peter Piot, the director of the LSHTM who co-discovered Ebola in 1976.
She also enjoying living in London.
"London is the first city I've ever lived in and I really love it. It feels like there is something for everyone, and never a shortage of new things to try, taste, do. I try to take advantage of the museums, galleries, concerts and shows when I can, although most of my time is spent studying," Laskowski said. "I want to spend some time exploring more of Great Britain and Europe on the weekends before I return to the U.S. in the fall."
Laskowski looks forward to applying the lessons learned throughout her master's program in future roles with organizations working on a significant and collaborative approach to improving public health outcomes throughout the world.
"The Royal Veterinary College is proud to provide financial support to a number of talented students, and help them realise their career goals. Sara was an exceptional candidate whose ability has been recognized, which we hope will provide her with the financial stability that is necessary to pursue her dream career in public health," Nina Davies, director of RVC Access, wrote in an email.
Laskowski hasn't started looking for jobs yet, but said she knows she wants to come back to Maryland to be closer to her family. Her mom, Kathy Lazarski, still lives in Aberdeen and her older sister lives with her husband in Baltimore County.
But she has a good idea of what she wants to do.
"I'm particularly interested in the relationship between health and disease at the human, animal and environment interface. How are changing social, environmental and agricultural factors driving disease, and how can we mitigate this?" she said. "Looming challenges like climate change, emerging infectious diseases, zoonotic diseases, antimicrobial resistance and overburdened food systems inspire me – there isn't a shortage of work to be done."
Laskowsi was raised with a strong sense of social justice, instilled in her by her mom, through the examples she set, and their family involvement with their local synagogue.
"When I started high school, my mom and I hosted a foreign exchange student in our family home who attended Aberdeen High School with me for the year. At the end of the school year, I went back to Taiwan for the summer to live with her and her family," Laskowski said. "The experiences and opportunities my mom exposed me to widened my perspectives from a young age and led me to seek work that felt meaningful and in line with my values."