BYU professor Gene Cole recently received the Utah County Health Department’s Friends of Public Health Award for his work with its Hazardous Waste Collection Day.
Joseph Miner, executive director of the health department, said the award is given to an individual or organization outside the health department that does a lot of important public health work for the department and community. This is the 17th year the award has been given.
Miner said over the past five years Cole has provided his students as volunteers to help with Hazardous Waste Collection Day. The annual event allows residents of Utah County to bring hazardous waste products like batteries, prescription medication and electronics so they are disposed of properly and don’t pollute the environment.
“One year we had no volunteers show up to help collect the waste that was being brought in,” Miner said. “(Cole) himself volunteered and brought students to help, and it has really helped the event be successful.”
Eric Edwards, division director of Health Promotion, said they almost cancelled the event after the first year when no one came to volunteer. He said Cole’s students are the reason they can continue hosting the event.
“He himself comes too. He doesn’t just send volunteers,” Edwards said. “I think it’s cool that we have an academic professor who comes and volunteers in the community with the expertise he teaches in.”
Cole, a professor of public health at BYU, has worked in many different areas within the field of public health and has done work in America as well as in Africa.
“I’ve been fortunate to have different opportunities to do work in so many different fields within public health,” Cole said. “I was happy a number of years ago to come to BYU and to share as much of this as possible with the students.”
Cole said his courses, while mostly content based, give practical information to students to not only help them in their professional lives but also in their personal lives. He also strives to give his students experience in the field of public health, which is why he involves them in events like Hazardous Waste Collection Day.
“It’s an opportunity for them to get out of the classroom and do some actual public health work,” he said. “Most of the students will be unloading these waste materials from cars and trucks and sorting it.”
According to Cole, the event is important because it gives residents of Utah County a venue to take waste that has the potential to contaminate ground water.
He also uses the students in his infectious disease class to educate Utah residents about the West Nile Virus at the Orem Summerfest. They have a booth and distribute information about causes and symptoms of the disease.
Cole said this gives students the opportunity to share what they’ve learned in class with the public. By educating the public about the disease it helps reduce the risk of contracting it. He said he looks for as many opportunities as he can to help his students gain experience and contribute to the community.
“My philosophy is, if someone’s in medical school, we don’t wait till they’re finished for them to start seeing patients,” Cole said. “We shouldn’t wait till people finish their public health education and have their degree before they start doing public health work
Cole, who also works with the Utah Asthma Task Force and Utah County Asthma Coalition, was surprised when he heard he was receiving the award, but he appreciated the kind thoughts from the people at the health department.
“I’ve interacted with them for many years now since I’ve been here, and they’ve just been a great group of people,” he said. “Public health is always understaffed and underfunded, yet within those challenges they just do a remarkable job at what they do.”
Cole said the members of the health department work every day to protect the health of the public. He said the recognition isn’t just for him but for the health department as well because it sheds light on all the work it does for the people of Utah County.
“They provide a valuable service to the community,” Cole said. “I’ve just always been happy to be a community volunteer and to be able to work with them on different programs within the health department and to make available students.”