College of Public Health Alums Enjoy Opportunities to Make a Difference at Environmental Company

By Kev' Moye

Jessica Besancon, Courtney Del Donno, Rebecca Lovan, Michael Ruckle and Jessica Stone all earned a Master in Public Health (MPH) degree from the college. All five of them work at CTEH, a company based in North Little Rock that goes across the globe helping businesses and population bases safely handle, or prepare for, hazardous situations.

“Our company helps to solve crisis situations,” Besancon said. “Our mission is to help companies, governments and communities prepare for, respond to, and recover from threats to their environment and people.”

Besancon is an associate health scientist. Del Donno is a response management consultant. Ruckle is a senior health scientist, epidemiology project manager. Stone has the role of senior associate health scientist. Lovan is an associate health scientist.

Since the start of the pandemic, many of their duties have revolved around COVID-19 safety measures. That’s where their MPH degrees and general interest in public health have come in handy.

“At CTEH we do a lot of environmental consulting and that sparked my interest in the field of public health,” Ruckle said. “I initially started working on my MPH in 2009 but had to stop. I restarted in the program in 2019 and finished in 2021, when I got an MPH with an emphasis in environmental and occupational health.”

Besancon’s fascination with public health stems from her days as an employee at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. During that time Besancon, who graduated in 2019 with a concentration in environmental and occupational health, became a fan of conducting research that improves the lives of Arkansans.

“At Children’s we performed studies that focused on maternal factors that would affect the growth of a child,” she said. “These studies included breastmilk-fed versus formula-fed children, animal studies, etc. The research was invaluable public health work.”

Stone’s intrigue with public health was born partially due to her husband earning a degree from the UAMS College of Pharmacy. While at a graduation celebration event, she found out about public health through a general conversation. Stone then sought to learn more about public health and quickly realized it was something she needed to be a part of.

“I didn’t know I had an interest in public health until someone put a name with it,” said Stone, who graduated in 2018 with a focus in environmental and occupational health. “Also, UAMS is a prestigious school. I was proud to be a student at the UAMS College of Public Health.”

Del Donno, who graduated from the college in 2018, was an undergraduate student when she took a class taught by an instructor who often talked about how toxic materials can create public health issues. The class has forever impacted Del Donno’s life — introducing her to the concept of public health.

“My initial interest in public health has led to me receiving a great public health education and the opportunity to go around the country leading incident command trainings and helping people respond to potential hazmat releases,” Del Donno said. “I’m grateful.”

Lovan graduated from the college in 2020. She’s a mental health advocate who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Lovan first found out about public health — and the college — while working at UAMS. Ultimately, Lovan asked about the school and realized a public health education aligned with her statewide advocacy efforts.

“The mission of the college and my desire to promote mental health in Arkansas was a great match,” she said. “As public health advocates, we strive for a healthy, educated population.”

Whether it was flexibility of the classes, the programs and scholarships offered, or the rapport with instructors, Besancon, Del Donno, Lovan, Ruckle and Stone each have fond memories of the college.

“I worked full time while attending school, and I appreciated how helpful the college’s staff was,” Besancon said.  “UAMS is the best of the best.”

Among the things that initially intrigued Del Donno about the college was how it’s in-state and doing important research. Del Donno values how she eventually got the opportunity to take part in some of the college’s research projects.

“I loved working closely with the professors and doing real world, applicable research,” Del Donno said. “I appreciate how the professors had real, public health professional experience. They weren’t individuals who had been exclusively professors their entire adult life.”

“I enjoyed the professors and having interesting, intellectual conversations with them,” Ruckle said. “I liked the flexibility of doing classes online as I pursued my degree.”

Much like Ruckle, Stone loved how the professors were compassionate and designed the courses and coursework to accommodate people who have families and jobs.

“There are a lot of online classes that you can take,” Stone said. “Also, if I had a question, I had easy access to the professors. They’d always assist me. It was a great experience for me.”

Lovan said she embraced the opportunity to establish a connection with the instructors.

“The student-to-teacher ratio was ideal,” Lovan said. “It made it easy to connect with my professors. I spoke candidly with them about my goals. The professors at the college want you to do well. They’re engaged and supportive of the students.”

CTEH, which was co-founded by Jay Gandy, Ph.D., former interim dean of the college, has been a model public health employer for the alums. Aside from Ruckle, who was already employed by the company when he began the MPH program, the college is a factor in helping them get a career with the corporation.

“UAMS’ College of Public Health opened many doors for me professionally that I wouldn’t have even known were available had I not attended the school,” Besancon said. “I have a great career, and it’s continuing to grow more than I ever expected.”

Del Donno acknowledged that when you’re in the field of emergency response, the health and safety of everyone is the top priority. The college’s curriculum did a lot to prepare her for that role.

“It’s all about ensuring the safety of the responders and people of an entire community,” she said. “You don’t want them exposed to the chemicals.

“When I first started with CTEH, I did toxicology litigation work. I’m now in a different department. However, I use my public health education, and knowledge, basically every day.”

Stone also receives daily reminders of how her MPH makes a positive impact in the lives of so many people.

“I use my degree every day,” she said. “One reason I got this job is because Dr. Gandy recommended me for it. Receiving the chance to learn from the professors and to have a mentor with the expertise of Dr. Gandy, I was equipped to handle a career in public health.”

Lovan said a UAMS job fair helped connect her with CTEH. She has leaned heavily on her public health education and student research projects to help her complete various professional duties.

“We’ve done a lot of COVID response work,” she said. “My public health degree has influenced how I get information to the public and how I approach each task. Plus, I know how to do research and formulate strong and well-researched opinions because of the college.”

For Ruckle, Gandy encouraged him to enroll in the school. He’s happy that he followed Gandy’s advice.

“Being a student in the college has benefited me a lot,” he said. “I’ve received the chance to work with numerous epidemiologists, and I’ve worked with people who have an MPH from public health schools from around the nation — and I’ve realized that I’m right on par with those individuals. It’s partly due to my education from the college.”