VCU Alumni’s 10 Under 10 awards program recognizes the noteworthy and distinctive achievements made by alumni who earned their first VCU degree (undergraduate, graduate or professional) within the past 10 years. This year we are proud to announce that one of VCU Environmental Studies’ graduates, Chtaura Jackson (M.S.’10/ENVS/LS), was selected to be among those recognized.
Chtaura received her Bachelor of Science in Biology from Chowan University, North Carolina. At Chowan, she developed an interest in predator-prey ecology which then led her to the lab of Prof. James Vonesh at VCU. Chtaura’s M.S. thesis examined the factors that shape biodiversity in the riverine rock pools characteristic of the James River fall zone here in Richmond.
“Chtaura really helped lay the foundation for our ongoing work in the rock pools”, Dr. Vonesh said, “She was the first student to work in that system in the lab and helped developed the maps and rock pool flood models that we used until very recently. Since her time in the lab, the rock pools have been both the focus of NSF funded ecological research and local STEM education outreach with RPS high school students. Chtaura played an important role in getting all that started.”
Chtaura has always been an adventurer, she says. So, in 2010, after finishing her master’s in environmental sciences at VCU, she took a trip abroad. Instead of a few carefree weeks hopscotching through Europe, she headed for a small village in South Africa’s North West province, working in the peace Corps for two years on a range of community development projects. The projects included providing HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis education at a local clinic, training staff in computer skills and database management, acquiring a grant to build a water collection system, and developing training materials for staff at a local orphanage. After that, she says, “I was just hooked.” Next, she went to a rural district in Malawi for a year for another wide-ranging assignment. There, she helped local government strengthen reporting, data management, coordination, and assessment of various programs to address HIV/AIDS and developed a strategic plan for HIV/AIDS response as well as helped improve the delivery of nutritional supplies to malnourished children. Eventually, she spent two years in South Sudan working for the Carter Center and the Ministry of Health on their guinea worm eradication program. If Guinea worm disease sounds obscure, it is —largely because it’s of no concern to citizens of healthier, wealthier parts of the world. “It only affects the poorest of the poor in the poorest country. The goal is to eradicate it; we only have four countries left in the world” where it still exists, she says.
Living abroad taught her resilience. “I think we really see who we are when we step out of our comfort zone. And I learned to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.” Living in South Sudan, a conflict zone gave her that chance. “It really tests you to see what you can handle. I saw that I can survive and be able to thrive and help people in tough situations.” Returning to the U.S. in 2017 with the kind of hands-on experience few accrue in a lifetime, much less by their mid-30s, she enrolled at George Washington University in a master’s in the public health program, with a concentration in global health and epidemiology, which she will finish this year. (Not to rest on her laurels, she has also been volunteering with local HIV/AIDS nonprofits, applying the skills she honed abroad.) She plans to continue working on infectious diseases and neglected tropical diseases, eventually leaving the U.S. again. Her previous experience has resulted in an extra dimension of relevance — she was in Malawi during the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone — so she wants to focus on prevention and control of future pandemics. In the meantime, she’s focusing on the current one, here at home: In August, she began working as logistics lead for the Richmond Health Department in its joint COVID-19community testing program with Henrico County.
As strong as her service ethos is, it’s also rooted in a deep foundation of humility. Yes, she knows she’s helped those she serves, but she feels just as indebted to them: “I’ve touched people in meaningful ways, but I’ve also been touched as well.“There’s an amazing proverb from the Zulu culture in South Africa: Ubuntu, or ‘I am because we are’ — I am who I am because of other people,” she says. “Being in a developed country, it’s easy to see ourselves in a bubble and don’t understand that we are all connected. I want to work within a community and to know people understand that we’re all connected. Because that is what will improve health and well-being and human rights.”
To find out more about the “10 under 10” program and this year’s honorees visit the Office of Alumni Relations.