Chip Minemyer | UPJ Biologist Leverages Theater Context in COVID-19 Efforts | New



While studying biology on her way to becoming the region’s leading infectious disease expert, Jill Henning also studied theater as an undergraduate.

Associate professor of biology and undergraduate research coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, Henning has spent the past 14 months leveraging both disciplines – science and the stage – as the face and voice of the efforts of community education on COVID-19.

She is a member of the In This Together Cambria group, working on its many projects, including developing an informational website and producing a series of virtual forums on aspects of the coronavirus. Henning is part of the Cambria County COVID-19 task force and has advised the Westmont Hilltop School District on its response to the pandemic.

“This movement has spread to so much more than I thought it could be, because I have so many great partners who are committed to helping the community in so many ways,” Henning said.

Shelley Johansson, good friend and partner of This Together Cambria, recalled that Henning played a role in last summer’s production of “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” with the Community Arts Center of Cambria County – made in l outdoors and with social distancing guidelines in place – even the COVID-19 effort was growing.

“Jill is a thespianist and … she is a university professor specializing in infectious diseases and teaches every day in the classroom,” Johansson said. “So she is literally the perfect person to educate the community about COVID through In This Together Cambria. Not only is she an expert on it, but she also knows how to explain it in an accessible and engaging way. “

UPJ President Jem Spectar, who called Henning a “real star” and “the best person we have on infectious diseases,” said he visited her home last March and moved away Henning from his work on Lyme disease to focus on COVID-19 and its impact on the Johnstown area.

“We recognized that this was a concern that required broader community outreach and a better understanding of the issues related to the pandemic,” Spectar said. “Above all, we had to warn people of the impending risks.

“It felt like we had to do this as a public service for our community. This is what universities should be doing. We need to find ways to share our expertise. “

Henning graduated from United High School in Armagh in 1998, taking with her training in dance as well as a dream of becoming a scientist who helped end deadly afflictions.

When she was in college, she hung a sign above her bed that read, “Dr. Jill Montgomery, pathologist. “

“When I was 13 I read a book about pathology and it made me want to get into this kind of work,” Henning said, “go to places people lacked, find out what that made them sick. ”

She studied biology, specializing in infectious diseases, at Washington & Jefferson University, then at the renowned Graduate School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh.

At W&J in Washington, PA, she also took classes in the drama department.

“I needed an outlet that wasn’t science,” she says. “And oh my God, that helped a lot.”

At Pitt, Henning specialized in microbiology with population dynamics and obtained a doctorate. in the microbiology of infectious diseases. One of the goals of his work was prostate cancer in African American men.

More recently, she has specialized in Lyme disease, mapping the spread of deer ticks through the migratory patterns of birds. In early 2020, she was working with professors at the University of Finland on the spread of Lyme disease and was preparing to join a statewide commission to monitor and resolve the issue.

Then COVID-19 happened.

“Every year I tell my students that the next disease we are talking about will be coronavirus,” she said.

“Since COVID happened, I have been getting so many emails from alumni.”

Henning said Specter had developed a “toolkit” for isolation and quarantine during a pandemic – “everything the CDC has done now, we have done in March” – and the president also found sources of funding for PJU virus research and outreach. efforts.

One important project was to compare the response to COVID-19 to what happened during the influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919. Some of the comparative research inspired a film project, “We Are All In This Together: Pandemic- Johnstown 1918 ”, directed by another UPJ colleague, Paul Douglas Newman, and with actress Kate Davis of Johnstown.

“We were trying to reach a different population, people who might not be comfortable with science,” Henning said. “This story has already been written.”

Henning said she became interested in public health, and more specifically infectious diseases, “because I wanted to work to make my community and the global community more safe from contagious diseases. I identify as an empath; it was an ideal choice to use my love of science to help my community. “

And make good use of that minor in the theater.

“I’ve spent my life preparing for this,” Henning said.

“I am honored to be able to help my community and the community wants it.”

Chip Minemyer is editor-in-chief of The Tribune-Democrat and, and CNHI’s regional editor for Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, and West Virginia. He can be reached at 814-532-5091. Follow him on Twitter @MinemyerChip.

Chip Minemyer is editor-in-chief of The Tribune-Democrat and, and CNHI’s regional editor for Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, and West Virginia. He can be reached at 814-532-5091. Follow him on Twitter @MinemyerChip.


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