Focus On highlights faculty, staff, students and researchers at the UC Academic Health Center. To suggest someone to be featured, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jason Blackard, PhD, an associate professor in the division of digestive diseases, is not only a researcher but also has a great love for travel, which led to the recent creation of a study abroad program for UC undergraduates. Blackard completed an undergraduate degree in biology and Spanish at the University of Arkansas in 1994 and then went to Harvard University from 1995 to 2000 to receive his doctorate in biological sciences, which is part of the public health program. He came to UC in September 2005 as a research assistant professor and has risen through the ranks to become an associate professor in the department of internal medicine. In 2011, Blackard became the director of the Pathobiology & Molecular Medicine Graduate Program and developed the aforementioned study abroad program which focuses on exposing students to the public health and research aspects of HIV.
What brought you to UC?
"My research focuses on HIV and viral hepatitis; therefore, the presence of strong clinical collaborators within the Hepatology Research Group was a key component of my coming to Cincinnati. Since arriving, I have held several NIH grants, as well as industry-sponsored awards, that focus on viral diversity and viral co-infections.
"However, I also have a desire to participate actively in undergraduate, medical and graduate education, and in the past six years I have developed and instructed four University Honors Program seminar courses and will be instructing a fifth course—Public Health and Infectious Disease Research: the South African Experience—in the spring of 2012 (http://www.uc.edu/honors/academics/travel/southafrica.html). This course will include a two-week study tour to two cities in South Africa.”
What got you interested in studying abroad and providing this opportunity for students?
"My real interest in study tours and studying abroad started at the age of 17 when I was an exchange student in Turkey with American Field Service (AFS). This experience gave me a serious case of the ‘travel bug,’ and to date, I have been to about 45 countries.
"Last year, I volunteered to travel to Ghana with a group of 13 high school students as part of a month-long service learning exchange program through AFS. After an amazing experience there, I decided to develop a study abroad experience for UC undergraduates that focused on the public health and research aspects of HIV/AIDS—a major focus within my research lab. Given strong collaborators and a travel-friendly infrastructure, I chose South Africa as the place for this portion of the course. Through a Faculty Development Award, I was able to travel to South Africa in September/October 2011 to work on logistics for the course, meet with collaborators and establish a firm itinerary, as well as doing a bit of sightseeing. More recently, I traveled a second time to Ghana as part of the University Honors Program’s Women, Population, and Development course. I am now planning on applying for a faculty development grant through UC’s International Programs Office to establish another public health-focused course with a study component in Ghana.
"I became the director of the Pathobiology & Molecular Medicine Graduate Program in July 2011. Given the growing need for graduate students and faculty to internationalize their research base, we are now actively pursuing international research collaborations for our graduate students to complement similar endeavors at the undergraduate level.”
What are your next steps?
"My educational goals at the undergraduate level are to actively participate in course development and instruction and to establish two study abroad courses: one in South Africa and one in Ghana, to be offered by the University Honors Program in alternating years. I would also like to expand each of these programs to include master’s and PhD students, when possible.
"As for research, my graduate training was very internationally focused and has inspired me to strive for the same in my independent research career. Ideally, I would like my research program to include two to three sustained collaborations with international researchers that permit the regular exchange of graduate students between UC and international universities.”
Is there one particular story or moment that really puts the goal of this program in perspective that you might like to share?
"On a recent trip to Ghana, I was reminded constantly about the role that health plays in development of a country. I also truly enjoyed experiencing a country through the eyes of a student with limited experience outside of the U.S. Public health and research can sometimes be best illustrated in international settings where health education is limited, research funding is scarce and population-based prevention programs are uncommon.”
What do you like to do in your spare time? Any hobbies or interests?
"I should probably say running since I run one to two marathons per year and find myself constantly training for a run! However, I also spend much of my spare time working with AFS as a liaison—a volunteer who works with high school exchange students from other countries and their American host families. Last year, I was a host family for the first time for a 17-year-old boy from Germany.”