Campus mourns loss of Robin Mittenthal

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Robin Mittenthal, who touched hundreds of student lives as manager, advisor, mentor and field course leader for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Undergraduate Certificate in Global Health, died suddenly this weekend following an accident at his farm.

“Robin was a very thoughtful, passionate family man,” says Sherry Tanumihardjo, professor of Nutritional Sciences and director of the undergraduate certificate. “His family was the most important thing to him. Some of this passion rubbed off in his mentoring of hundreds of students.”

Mittenthal managed the certificate program from just after its inception in 2011 to spring 2017, when he became center coordinator at the Upper Midwestern Regional Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Disease.

Employed by the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS), he was a central contributor to the development and coordination of the undergraduate certificate. The program is co-sponsored by GHI and CALS.

As an administrative manager, Mittenthal dedicated countless hours organizing the program and advising students. “Robin was involved right from the start of the undergraduate certificate in global health,” says Jonathan Patz, director of the Global Health Institute. “The early success of the new program was due, in no small part, to his unfailing dedication and caring for the experience of each and every student.”

“Robin was an intelligent, caring and loved advisor by hundreds of students,” says Lori DiPrete Brown, associate director for education and engagement at the Global Health Institute and an undergraduate certificate leader. “He cared deeply about education, the environment and the way food systems related to health, but most importantly, his family was the center of his life.”

Mittenthal’s vibrant spirit as an advisor and educator predated his engagement with the certificate program. He served as an agricultural advisor with the Peace Corps in The Gambia during the mid 1990s and worked as a librarian and teacher for K-12 students.

At the Upper Midwestern Regional Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Disease, Mittenthal was responsible for coordinating partners in five states and tracking the center’s progress in addressing vector-borne disease challenges. Susan Paskewitz and Lyric Bartholomay, co-directors of the Center, admired the radiance Mittenthal brought with him.

“People have said so many amazing things about him — his passion for what he did, caring for students, sense of humor and intelligence,” Paskewitz says. “One of our students said he was like a perfect human being.”

In a GoFundMe campaign to contribute to the education savings accounts for Mittenthal’s children, Bartholomay wrote: “Robin Mittenthal had a rare gift for connecting to other people. He gave us his time, his undivided attention, his radiant smile, his stories that spanned an unbelievable repertoire of life experiences, his infectious enthusiasm, his thanks and his encouragement. In so doing, he touched lives of countless colleagues in entomology and CALS, of hundreds of undergraduate advisees in the Global Health certificate, and of the students, staff and colleagues in and surrounding a new center on campus for mosquito and tick-borne disease.”

UW senior KM Barnett met with Mittenthal last week about plans for next semester’s work at the center. The short meeting became two hours to visit about her long- and short-term career goals. She remembers: “At the end of the meeting, he said to me, ‘I am so excited for all the things you’ll do.’ His words warmed me with comfort and confidence. … I am grateful for Robin’s keen ability to listen and say the right thing at just the right time.”

Sweta Shrestha, program manager for the Wisconsin Population Health Service Fellowship Program at the Population Health Institute, worked closely with Mittenthal during her time as GHI’s assistant director for education, especially in the early stages of the certificate program. “He was larger than life, and he cared so deeply,” she says. “There are so many students he’s impacted. He wanted to nurture every student, and he did — he put everyone else ahead of himself. If a student needed a recommendation letter and he was up to his ears in work, he wouldn’t hesitate to say yes.”

Across campus, students mourn. Samuel Park, a senior with a Certificate in Global Health, remembers Mittenthal as a kind-hearted, passionate advisor. “He will forever be remembered as a shining light in the campus community who inspired many, many students to pursue careers in support of our collective health,” says Catherine Goslin (’17), who earned her undergraduate certificate.

During Mittenthal’s tenure, the certificate expanded to reach hundreds of students. It has become the largest undergraduate certificate on campus. “The connections he made across campus were incredible,” says Devika Suri, who worked with Mittenthal as an undergraduate certificate advisor. “Everyone knew him and respected him. He was able to bridge different areas of campus to bring people together and collaborate.”

Mitthenthal’s impact resounded across campus. Prior to working for the certificate, he served as chairman of the board overseeing the Eagle Heights Community Gardens while pursuing his Ph.D. in entomology, studying how organic fertilizer affected insect pests.

“He tried to infuse his love of the land and earth with his job,” Suri says. “Farming was his love and passion, and his dream was always to have a farm.”

A dream that came to life in Little Mammoth Berry Farm, LLC, a farm on a beautiful plot in Belleville, Wisconsin, that will reflect the energy and compassion of Mittenthal, it’s builder, for years to come.

Mittenthal was 43. He is survived by his wife, Daniella Molle, and their two children.

“He was a salt of the earth kind of guy,” Shrestha says. “He was so good, and so honest. The spaces he made for students were his way of showing how much he cared about global health, and the spaces the land makes for us.”

Mittenthal was remembered at grief sessions for faculty and staff, and students, Tuesday.

His funeral will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at Cress Funeral Home, 6021 University Avenue. Visitation for family and close friends begins at 10 a.m. His obituary has been posted.

To contribute to the GoFundMe campaign, click here.

By Yusra Murad/ December 6, 2017

Photo by George Hesselberg/Wisconsin State Journal

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Health access program bridges micro-finance, health for Uganda’s poor

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This story appeared first at news.wisc.edu.

Patients, mostly mothers and children, outside a clinic along Lake Victoria, Uganda. As the sign indicates, the clinic relies on health workers from the government Ministry of Health, transported by Health Access Connect (HAC). KEVIN GIBBONS/HEALTH ACCESS CONNECT

In 2008, Kevin Gibbons began research in Uganda’s fishing communities. His goal, as a student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, was to understand how efforts to promote sustainable fisheries affected family income.

And then a series of “smack yourself on the forehead” moments caused him to switch gears from fishery management to the problem of access to health care.

Today, Gibbons is executive director of Health Access Connect (HAC), a non-profit that merges microfinance and health-care access in Uganda. HAC lends to taxi drivers wanting to buy a motorcycle. In return, the driver agrees to spend three days a month transporting government health workers to nearby villages for a monthly clinic.

Gibbons received his Master’s degree from UW–Madison in 2012 in conservation biology and sustainable development.

The first head-smack occurred during interviews at a fishing community on the shore of Lake Victoria, when he learned that villagers were still dying of HIV/AIDS, even though the government was offering free, effective medicine just three miles away.

Children fetch water at sunset at a fishing community on Lake Victoria, where many residents have difficulty reaching the health system. KEVIN GIBBONS/HEALTH ACCESS CONNECT

A second bit of enlightenment occurred at a remote island on Lake Victoria. “It was a very exotic trip, and I was enjoying myself,” Gibbons recalls. “When I asked about life on the island, my source said, ‘If I could leave, I would leave tomorrow. If I get sick, if a mother is in labor, or a child breaks an arm, it’s an eight-hour boat trip’” to the nearest clinic. Gibbons adds, “Afterwards, I didn’t see those hours-long motorcycle and boat rides in the same way.”

As Gibbons and HAC co-founder Carolyne Ariokot were incubating ideas to bridge the gap, a friend asked Gibbons for a loan to buy a motorcycle to use as a taxi, which is a standard way to get around in rural Uganda. “Mike Nsubuga walked me through the business,” Gibbons says. “Motorcycles cost $1,300, so most guys rent, which makes for an expensive, unstable livelihood.”

By 2014, he and Ariokot began to see a solution in micro-finance loans that would provide income and health transport.

HAC program director Carolyne Ariokot and borrower Mike Nsubuga discuss logistics. Mike paid off the first motorcycle loan in February, 2017, and now owns this cycle. KEVIN GIBBONS/HEALTH ACCESS CONNECT

Although treating HIV/AIDS had been the initial impetus for thinking about expanding the reach of existing health services, the goal has broadened.

“There are issues of privacy,” says Gibbons. “If that’s all we did, you would know that patients were HIV-positive. Also, there is demand for other services.”

Frequent clinic services include HIV and malaria testing, vaccines for children, family planning and perinatal care.

All care is delivered by government employees, Gibbons emphasizes, with HAC simply providing transport to and from the villages.

Lisa Naughton, who is chair of the department of geography at UW–Madison, says Gibbons was “a great communicator and a force for good in the world.” Naughton, who has studied the links between poverty and the environment in Uganda, says “you find people in the poorest remote areas, languishing, ill at home, because they can’t even get $3 to get to a clinic in a nearby town.”

With HAC’s win-win approach, she says, “A lot of young men are helping their homes and families by becoming motorcycle taxi drivers.”

HAC motorcycle loan recipient Steven Ssenkubuge delivers medical supplies to a mobile clinic in Uganda. KEVIN GIBBONS/HEALTH ACCESS CONNECT

Health Access Connect now has three full-time and three part-time employees. Motorcycle loans are just the start. HAC has bought four ambulance trailers that can trail behind a motorcycle, is surveying health access in Uganda, and it’s hiring. “The common thread is that we are always trying to serve the health needs of those in remote areas,” Gibbons says.

At present, HAC’s bread and butter is the micro-finance enabled transport of health workers. For the 18-month term of the loan, one motorcycle and its driver serve three villages with a monthly clinic. Then, if the driver has paid the loan every week, “he owns the motorcycle and is not obligated to drive for us,” Gibbons says. “At that point, we may keep them on retainer, or take the money and loan it out for another motorcycle.”

Committing three days will trim the driver’s income, “but it’s a great loan and a great opportunity,” Gibbons says. Over the 18-month course of one loan, he says, that driver can enable 2,625 people to be treated. “And it’s no problem at all to find guys who want a loan.”

Health Access Connect starts its annual fund-raiser on Giving Tuesday, Nov. 28.

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2018 Global Health Symposium

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The Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is pleased to welcome Professor Susan Paskewitz as the keynote speaker for the 14th annual Global Health Symposium: Advancing Health in Uncertain Times. The symposium begins at 4:30 p.m., Tuesday, April 10, 2018.

Paskewitz is professor and chair of the Department of Entomology in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. She also is co-director of the Upper Midwestern Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Disease funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a member of the GHI Advisory Committee. Her research focuses on medically important arthropods, including ticks and mosquitoes, and the human pathogens they transmit. She also teaches classes in global health and medical entomology.

The annual symposium provides a forum for the UW-Madison global health community to showcase recent work and connect with each other. The evening includes oral and poster presentations and a closing panel on a global health hot topic.

Watch this page for more details and registration information.

Call for abstracts

Deadline: February 12, 2018

The call is open to members and partners of the UW-Madison community who are addressing global health and disease. From basic research to education to applied projects in the field, the symposium hopes to showcase the full spectrum of UW-Madison global health activity. We encourage and welcome presentations from all disciplines—from arts, agriculture, and business, to education, engineering, and humanities, to all of the health sciences and more. 

Following the keynote address, selected oral presenters will deliver their work in 15-minute (including time for questions), concurrent sessions. Posters will be available for viewing all evening, and a poster session follows the presentations. Hors d’oeuvres will be served during the networking reception that closes the evening.

Abstract Submission Form

 

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