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Rising to the Challenge

May 17, 2021
three people in lab coats
Isaac Campbell, Amanda Christensen, and Grace Dereemer at the Wyoming Public Health Laboratory. (Courtesy photo)

Students step up to help during pandemic. 

By Micaela Myers 

From Thanksgiving meals to COVID-19 testing to important messaging, University of Wyoming students played a key role in the pandemic response—helping to keep fellow students happy, healthy and on track in their studies. 

Testing, Testing

To help slow the spread of COVID-19 on campus, UW developed a robust testing program and hired many students to help with the effort. “While looking for jobs, I wanted to be able to give back to our campus community and realized working with our testing team was the perfect way to do that and also earn needed money,” says UW Shield Team member Alea Denney, a first-year international studies major from Keene, N.H. “I am additionally very interested in the processes that go into addressing a pandemic and was excited by the prospect of being able to participate in those response processes.”

On the Shield Team, Denney assists students, faculty and staff through their COVID-19 testing.

“I think the most rewarding part of my job is the knowledge that I’m helping to contribute to the greater well-being of our students and faculty in my own way,” she says. “I also enjoy the company and interactions from work.”

Denney hopes to continue giving back after graduation by volunteering with the Peace Corps. “From there, I plan on getting my master’s degree before working with the U.S. Department of State as a foreign service officer. This has been my dream to work to not only help Americans abroad but also forge stronger ties with our allies and learn about cultures around the world.”

Senior Amanda Christensen of Buford, Wyo., helped process COVID-19 tests at the Wyoming Public Health Laboratory (WPHL) throughout the summer. A chemical engineering and physiology major with an honors minor, she performs undergraduate physiology research at UW labs, which gave Christensen valuable skills to bring to the WPHL. 

At WPHL, she accessioned samples, which means she examined specimens for sample integrity and made sure all submission requirements were met before entering the sample and patient information into the computer system and preparing the sample for testing. While there, Christensen also got to help with other types of testing the lab handles.

“The largest challenge for me was definitely the copious hours that the job demanded. The lab was functioning seven days a week, including holidays, over the summer,” she says. “The biggest reward for me was simply learning about how public health is incorporated into the health care system.

I learned about courier systems for specimens, about which clinics service underserved populations and simply how medical facilities across the state function. I got to talk with medical personnel across the entire state and enjoyed hearing about their daily operations and challenges. Of course, there was also a huge sense of accomplishment in actually helping people.”


two people with dogs
Colton Zier and Cheyenne Hurlburt. (Photo by Elayna Rose Photography)

Mapping the Virus

Colton Zier of Basin, Wyo., graduated this December with his master’s degree in statistics and a minor in mathematics. In his final year at UW, he helped create a nationwide interactive COVID-19 map. His work included data processing, model creation and a dashboard that automatically updates daily. “The three plots that show on the website are raw incidence rate per 100,000 persons, trend evaluation and smoothed prediction maps,” he says. “I learned a lot of useful things about spatial data analysis and web design and learned a lot of about the virus itself.”

In addition to this project, Zier had to balance his schoolwork, graduate assistantship duties and work at a car dealership. “I didn’t sleep much,” he says.

Zier is currently working at the Wyoming Public Health Laboratory as part of its COVID-19 surge team. In the future, he says, “I would like to stay in the health field and study major diseases or pandemics.”


Representing Students

Associated Students of UW President Riley Talamantes, a senior political science major with a minor in gender and women’s studies from Whittier, Calif., assumed her position in student government in May 2020. “We hit the ground running by being members of the COVID-19 response working group,” she says.

They were tasked with gathering student feedback regarding course modality, testing and mask requirements. “With this survey, we were able to provide feedback on the fall 2020 plan and essentially help mold some of these critical points in the campus plan,” Talamantes says.

She also serves on UW’s Contingency Committee and the Vaccination Working Group.

“I think the biggest challenge was getting students to abide by some of these policies off-campus,” she says. “We ran into some issues last semester where the number of cases on our campus was growing, and there was anxiety about potentially having to go into a pause. We began working closely with UW Institutional Marketing on exploring creative ways to message why students should be following these guidelines.”

Talamantes hopes to go on to earn her master’s in public policy or administration. “As a political science student, I am fascinated with how policies are created and implemented,” she says. “Getting to be a part of this process was very eye-opening in that way.”


Law Meets Art

Law and environment and natural resources J.D. and M.A. student Ryan Sedgeley of Yellowstone National Park brought together two of his passions by helping organize an art exhibition hosted by the UW Art Museum and sponsored by the College of Law. “The exhibition Dispatches from Exile showcased art created by law students and faculty that was created during the global pandemic,” he says. “When my classmates and I abruptly got separated as the university went online last spring, it felt like there needed to be some way for us to keep our community connected. Knowing that so many of the folks at the College of Law are artists, I thought that an art exhibition would be a great way for us to connect across the distance. A virtual exhibition seemed like the perfect fit.”

An artist’s reception was hosted over Zoom. “For that hour, we were all back together and sharing our experiences of COVID-19 through art,” Sedgeley says. “A couple contributors gave live readings of the poems they submitted. It was really amazing to hear the authors share their poems in their own voices. It was also a great experience to hear thoughts from the artists as their works were presented in the slide show.”

He also enjoyed helping law students share their creative side and foster community engagement. After graduation this spring, Sedgeley hopes to work for a federal land management agency or nonprofit organization working on public land issues. He also plans to continue painting, sculpting and making jewelry.


two women
Hannah Ellis (left); Shelbey Prusia (right) (Shelby Prusia's photo by McMillan Photography)

Getting the Word Out

When Hannah Ellis and Shelbey Prusia started their UW Institutional Marketing social media internships last school year, the pandemic wasn’t yet on the radar. Soon, however, their positions became very important for spreading vital messages to students.

“Social media is an essential tool in being able to communicate and engage as a campus community during COVID-19,” says Ellis, a marketing and dance major from Aurora, Colo., who graduated in December and earned a full-time job as an Institutional Marketing social media coordinator.

“Managing the social media is very challenging because people can be extremely mean and often don’t realize there is a real person behind the account,” she says. “Although it was challenging and definitely took an emotional toll to share COVID-19-related information, it was so rewarding to be able to answer people’s questions and help them feel more prepared and secure during such an uncertain time.”

She learned that social media can play an important role in connecting people and creating a sense of community, especially during a time when they have to be physically apart.

Fellow former intern Shelbey Prusia of Torrington, Wyo., a communication major and journalism minor, also graduated in December and earned a full-time job with marketing as a strategic communications coordinator. “I have been in charge of getting a lot of the Cowboys Can messaging out on social media and other platforms,” she says. “Whether that be planning content or making content myself, my biggest role on campus this past semester was getting COVID-19-related information out to those who needed to know. It’s been a great collaborative effort between myself, my amazing co-workers, bosses and a lot of other departments around UW. In a time such as this, it’s important to be collaborative and supportive, as we all are going through challenges and need a little help sometimes.”

While Prusia shares Ellis’ angst over harsh responses to posts, she also enjoys the more creative side of their jobs. “It was nice to be creative with projects like ‘Quarentween’ and have people enjoy those posts,” she says.


Happy Thanksgiving

Statistics master’s student Carson Keeter of Charleston, S.C., works as a teaching assistant at UW. Because of COVID-19, many of his students couldn’t travel home this past Thanksgiving. “Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday,” he says. “I decided to see if any of my students would like some homemade desserts and goodies to supplement their holiday meal. When my adviser and good friend, Professor Ken Gerow, caught wind of this, he also wanted to provide some food for folks. I absolutely love baking, and Ken is quite the chef himself, so between the two of us, we had quite the Thanksgiving meal put together. All said and done, we provided turkey, proper Thanksgiving fixings, homemade bread and various desserts to our students. Most were missing out on their usual family meal that day and were very thankful to have a meal that reminded them of their families.”

Between making bread, cinnamon rolls, scones, pies and cookies, Keeter says his oven was going nonstop with buzzers ringing every five minutes in the days leading up to the holiday. All together, he separated about 50 pounds of flour.

After graduation this spring, Keeter plans to continue his career in teaching, statistics and data science. “I could see myself as a data scientist for a hospital, research group, or, possibly, Sara Lee bread company,” he jokes.

While he considers his contribution to the pandemic response a minor one, it’s often the little things that make Laramie a home away from home for students.

“Growing up in South Carolina, cooking food for others is a love language,” Keeter says. “Cooking up a bunch of desserts, bread and the like is just my way of saying, ‘I love and appreciate my students and Laramie.’ That message is especially important nowadays.”

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