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Arnold School of Public Health


I Am Public Health: Eva Preisner

June 1, 2017 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu 

Residents of coastal states like South Carolina are all too familiar with the havoc hurricanes wreak on the lives and infrastructures of communities impacted by these storms. Public health researchers and professionals are at the nexus of preparation and recovery efforts—even at the level too small to be seen by the human eye.

Eva Preisner is on the forefront of this field. She studies how microbial ecosystems are affected by disturbances, particularly what happens to natural ecosystems after a disturbance as big as a hurricane. Preisner also looks at how long it takes for these microscopic communities to return to their pre-disturbed state.

In August, the Ph.D. candidate will complete her doctoral program, graduating from the Arnold School of Public Health with her second degree from the Department of Environmental Health Sciences (ENHS). What was once an unfamiliar place has now become a second home—one that has prepared Preisner for the next chapter in her life as a scientist.

What seemed scary at first—going to a different continent where you don't know anyone and studying in a foreign language—ended up being the best decision of my life.

-Eva Preisner, ENHS Ph.D. Candidate

“Deciding to get out of my comfort zone is what brought me here,” says Preisner of her decision to travel from her native Germany to the United States to complete her senior thesis for her undergraduate degree in water sciences. “What seemed scary at first—going to a different continent where you don't know anyone and studying in a foreign language—ended up being the best decision of my life.”

That decision began with an email to Sean Norman, associate professor of environmental health sciences and director of the Molecular Microbial Ecology Lab. Preisner asked him if she could conduct a three-month research project in his lab. He enthusiastically agreed to mentor her during her stay, which ended up being about seven years longer than Preisner had initially planned.

“This great opportunity that was given to me by Dr. Norman, to do an independent undergraduate research project, was what started my scientific career,” Preisner says. “So right after I finished my undergraduate research, I started graduate school.”

Her hands-on experience in Norman’s Lab and her passion for the environment led Preisner to choose the Master of Science in Environmental Health Sciences program. Toward the end of her master’s program, Preisner joined Norman on a research project studying disturbance ecology on a remote island in the Bahamas, a topic that she continued to study through her dissertation project.

Basically, healthy ecosystems are directly related to human health as they provide us with clean water, food, and clean air.

-Eva Preisner, ENHS Ph.D. Candidate

In this line of research, Norman’s team uses microbes, the foundation blocks of ecosystems, as a model to look at the health of an ecosystem. “When you look at our environment as a whole, you see that everything is connected,” Preisner explains. “Basically, healthy ecosystems are directly related to human health as they provide us with clean water, food, and clean air. We like to think of it as ‘One Health.’”

They have also brought their lab to K12 students by partnering with local schools. The scientists taught a class of first graders how to build a microbial powered battery using the school’s pond water and sediment. They took a high school group to the Bahamas for a week to show them their research and teach them some of their field techniques. Preisner has also served as a judge at the USC Science and Engineering Fair for high school students.

“It's so important for scientists to engage with kids and share knowledge and make them think about their environment in a different way,” says Preisner. “There are so many brilliant young minds out there; it was fun interacting with them and giving them input on their ideas.”

It's so important for scientists to engage with kids and share knowledge and make them think about their environment in a different way.

-Eva Preisner, ENHS Ph.D. Candidate

Preisner has been building her scholarship experiences as well, contributing as lead and co-author on scientific publications and presenting at local and international conferences. She frequently places among the top three award winners in her category.

After seven years with the ENHS department, Preisner has figured out what sets it apart. “Our department is very unique, because we have so many different areas related to environmental health science,” she says. “The interaction between faculty and students is what I think makes this department stand out.”

Throughout that first project and her two graduate programs, Norman was that primary mentor for Preisner. “Most of the time doing research, we fail, and learning how to overcome these failures and how to troubleshoot has been most challenging, but Dr. Norman would always have an open door to talk about new strategies and share his experience from graduate school and how he overcame failure,” she says. “He always supports my new research ideas and challenges me to become a better scientist. For that, I'm very grateful.” Preisner also found mentors in lab manager and technician Erin Fichot and James Pinckney, director of the Belle W. Baruch Institute for Marine and Coastal Sciences

Our department is very unique, because we have so many different areas related to environmental health science. The interaction between faculty and students is what I think makes this department stand out.

-Eva Preisner, ENHS Ph.D. Candidate

After graduation, Preisner will pursue a position that involves researching and developing new techniques within her field. “I'm very excited to start a new chapter in my life,” she says. “I would love to be part of a team of scientists involved in microbiology research.”