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Arnold School of Public Health

  • Ryan Leighton Presenting Research

Environmental health sciences graduate joins National Institutes of Health’s Safety Operations and Support Branch

December 15, 2023 | Erin Bluvas,

Growing up on the coast, Ryan Leighton had a natural interest in learning about and protecting the marine environment. When he left Wilmington for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he began to realize he could turn his interests into a career. In particular, a semester with the Institute of Marine Sciences brought clarity for the environmental sciences and biology double major.

“I fell in love with marine microbiology and realized I could combine my interests for the environment and microbiology together with environmental health,” Leighton says. “This experience really kickstarted my public health and environmental health science career.”

Ryan Leighton

Ryan Leighton samples water to isolate bacteria from watersheds containing concentrated animal feeding operations.

After graduating in 2017, he continued his studies at UNC Chapel Hill with a master’s in environmental science and engineering. Leighton spent a year with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an ORISE Fellow in Waterborne Disease and Prevention before returning to academia to pursue a doctoral degree.

The Arnold School’s Ph.D. in Environmental Health Science (ENHS) program caught his attention because of the research being conducted at the Center for Oceans and Human Health and Climate Change Interactions and directed by ENHS chair Geoff Scott. One of the Center’s projects, led by ENHS professor and associate dean for research Alan Decho in his Microbial Interactions Laboratory, explored how environmental variables related to climate change could influence the growth and development of Vibrio.

Leighton had already studied Vibrio – a bacteria that can cause life-threatening wound infections – during his time with the Institute of Marine Sciences and was eager to continue this research at USC. In addition to serving as a graduate research assistant and lab manager for Decho, the Outstanding Environmental Microbiology Student Award winner also worked with Richland County’s Stormwater Management Division as a watershed protection intern.

“I am interested in how both the marine and human body environments can affect Vibrio bacterial growth on different types of plastic materials,” Leighton says. “Understanding how climate change and microplastics can affect potentially pathogenic bacteria, and thus affect One Health, is an emerging field that I think is super interesting.”

I fell in love with marine microbiology and realized I could combine my interests for the environment and microbiology together with environmental health.

Ryan Leighton
Ryan Leighton

Having had a great experience with the CDC, the August graduate was glad to accept another governmental position — this time with the National Institutes of Health. As a biologist with the Safety Operations and Support Branch, Leighton leans on the lessons learned from his doctoral program in his day-to-day work. This includes skills related to collaboration, patience, laboratory management, training and teaching as well as his deeper understanding of microbiology. Leighton also credits his preparation to his mentors, including Scott and Decho along with graduate director Dwayne Porter and ENHS associate professor Sean Norman.

“Dr. Scott and Dr. Porter have always been happy to help and answer any kind of question, whether it was related to the program or what research was interesting and upcoming in the environmental health science world,” he says. “Dr. Norman and Dr. Decho both were instrumental in helping me develop my dissertation, provide guidance and helping me further my understanding of microbiological processes, especially those related to the marine environment.”

“Dr. Decho’s knowledge, patience and support made the difference in my time during the program,” Leighton adds. “I really was able to develop as an independent scientist, which made me more confident and why I am in the position I am in today to go back into government and further help protect and enhance public health.”

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