Circle of life brings SPH honors grad to a new day, new opportunities

By Sally Crocker 

Sydney Manning, HSC School of Public Health Honors Graduate, Class of 2021

The study of turkeys, fish, native wolves and other wildlife helped one of this year’s HSC commencement award winners find connections to the people side of public health and her future career path.

Sydney Manning, Master of Science (MS) in Epidemiology student at the HSC School of Public Health (SPH), was selected as the 2021 Kenneth H. Cooper Award winner for Outstanding Research. Manning graduated from the SPH in May 2021.

This honor is presented annually to the SPH graduate demonstrating excellence and quality in the application of research methods in preparation of a final product or project for the thesis or other research activities. Best-selling author and health/wellness guru Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper, who founded the renowned Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas in 1970, is the inspiration behind this award.

The turkey industry is big in Michigan, where Manning completed her undergraduate degree in fisheries and wildlife. Wild turkeys are legally hunted as part of a large recreational sporting industry, so governmental and other entities maintain close predictions on the impact to future populations over time.

As a research assistant, Manning helped transform field data into these types of predictive models. The approach, she said, is “basically driven by life” and applies in much the same ways whether studying animal or human populations.

“Consider the way disease predictions are made,” she said. “The science helps us look to the future and predict where adjustments and health interventions may be beneficial.”

Manning worked on another interesting project as an undergraduate, studying reintroduction of wolves to native territory across three states in the Yellowstone area  a job that impacted politics and policy and required an understanding of the needs of different groups, including ranchers, wildlife agencies and other stakeholders.

“Like many of the conversations the world has faced around COVID-19 over the last year, a lot hinged on balancing the needs of those involved and taking their different perspectives and risk factors into account,” she said.

“Sometimes my job was more about managing people and negotiating with different groups than about managing the wildlife.”

Seeing the people applications to this type of work ultimately led Manning to public health and HSC.

Math and science were strong areas for her, providing a natural transition toward a master’s in epidemiology and biostatistics. She matched with SPH Assistant Professor Dr. Zhengyang Zhou and recently completed a data methods paper for publication that is hoped to give other researchers improved ability for uncovering the links between certain diseases and genes.

An interesting year

There have been many ups and downs for students during the pandemic. Thirteen months ago, Manning was living with her brother and another roommate, both state troopers for the Department of Public Safety.

When they were assigned to COVID-19 screenings at the airport, the three agreed that the risks might be too high for Manning to stay. She wanted to keep her parents safe, so moving home wasn’t a good option either.

She moved into her boyfriend’s one-bedroom apartment, where they made do for a while with three cats who didn’t get along, personal possessions that hardly fit and limited space for laptops and work.

Within a few months, they were fortunate to find larger space where she no longer had to live out of a suitcase or double purpose the kitchen table as her desk.

“I missed studying at the library and getting together with friends,” Manning said. “My boyfriend left for work every day, and I did everything from home. There are a couple student research coworkers I never had a chance to meet in person before we graduated.”

Today Manning is fully vaccinated and feeling encouraged, with plans to start meeting friends for lunch on a patio, spending time with her family again, and getting back to the rock-climbing gym and other things she most enjoys.

She’s also excited about her new job with the HSC Department of Pharmacotherapy, as a Senior Research Associate, Data Analyst Health Services.

“I’m looking forward to getting back to life and entering my next stage,” she said.

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