UF student works to improve community health in Africa thanks to National Geographic grant

By Kacey Finch

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Being charged by elephants, crossing the Nile River and hiking through an African conflict area with armed guards has humbled Nick Dowhaniuk. Now, he’s embarking on a two-year journey funded by National Geographic to study community perspectives of public health in Uganda for his dissertation project.

Dowhaniuk hopes to build on his eye-opening experiences from his first trip to Uganda in 2014.

“I had a lot of misconceptions, and I’ll be the first to admit it,” he said. “I definitely had the idea, as a 24-year-old college student, that I knew best. Then I got over there and learned I know nothing.”

When Dowhaniuk first came to the University of Florida to pursue a Ph.D. in medical geography and a Master of Health Science in environmental and global health, the 28-year-old had never been to Central Florida. Before arriving in Gainesville, Dowhaniuk obtained a master’s degree in conservation from the University of New Hampshire.

“The more I did research with conservation issues the more I saw an overlap with public health, and it started to get me really interested in public health,” said Dowhaniuk, a native of Canada. “Then, it seemed like a no-brainer for me to go back and get a Ph.D. and master’s in public health.”

But Dowhaniuk didn’t always know what he wanted to pursue. During his undergraduate years at UNH, he took a geography course focusing on sub-Saharan African. “I was able to connect my passion and love for the world and other cultures with something that I could do,” he said.

Later, he got involved in his UNH adviser’s research in Africa and pursued it as his master’s project. Eventually, he made his first trip to Uganda in 2014 to study the impact of oil development on conservation and nearby communities.

Dowhaniuk randomly applied for a grant from National Geographic for his first master’s project and was awarded the funds. Since then, he has attended conferences, traveled to headquarters in Washington, D.C., is an Explorer for the organization and has had articles and photographs featured on National Geographic media platforms.

In late September, he traveled back to Uganda for his Ph.D. dissertation project using a another grant from National Geographic. Dowhaniuk will conduct research in Uganda for up to two years but hopes for the project to become a long-term relationship.

“One of the big themes of this research is including the community in every stage of it and not just being somebody from the other side of the world going over and doing what I want, but more letting loose a lot of the decision-making process,” he said.

Amy Blue, Ph.D., a clinical professor in the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions’ department of environmental and global health, is a former professor of Downhaniuk’s who now serves on his dissertation committee. She acknowledged how passionate he is about community building and improving health in Uganda.

“He  is mindful of understanding the local population and addressing the local population’s needs and perspectives,” said Blue, the college’s associate dean of educational affairs and UF Health associate vice president for interprofessional education.

Dowhaniuk, an avid photographer, plans to implement photography into his research by giving Ugandans cameras to capture their perspectives of community health issues.

“For me, it’s always been such a big tool to be able to communicate difficult stories and cross culture and linguistic barriers through photography,” he said.

His Ph.D. adviser, professor Gregory Glass, Ph.D., a professor in the UF College of Liberal Arts and Science’s department of geography, thinks Dowhaniuk demonstrates what the point of a Ph.D. is.

“Ultimately, what a doctorate is supposed to be able to do is be out there on their own and be independent in both their research and teaching,” Glass said. “He’s shown he can do that.”

To Dowhaniuk, it’s about more than just research, a degree or a career — it’s about collaboration.

“I think a lot of times in research we get bogged down by our own career goals and wanting to get published and sometimes the end goal gets lost,” he said.

Of course, he couldn’t do this if it weren’t helping his degree or future career, but it doesn’t have to only be about that.

“I think, in a lot of ways, it should be less about that than anything, and it should be about building capacity in the communities you work with and making sure they get tangible benefits,” Dowhaniuk said. “Ultimately, trying to work toward a shared vision.”

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