Student Spotlight: Daniel Acosta

Four years into his Ph.D. program, University of Florida Department of Environmental and Global Health student Daniel Acosta has never felt more sure of his role in the public health field. 

The 32-year-old student from Barranquilla, Colombia, moved to the United States in 2017 to pursue UF’s Master of Sustainable Development Practice program. 

Originally, Acosta aimed to work in oceanography to study climate impact on marine life. However, after taking a global health course for his master’s program, he fell in love with learning about the intersection of climate change and environmental public health. 

Daniel Acosta visits Ras Nouadhibou (also known as Cap Blanc) a peninsula between Mauritania and Western Sahara.

“I thought, ‘Okay, now this is actually what I want to do,’” Acosta said.

During his master’s program, he met and worked alongside EGH research associate professor Dr. Sarah McKune on a USAID-funded Feed the Future Livestock Systems Innovation Lab project.

This experience pushed Acosta further into the study of environmental public health, prompting his consideration of earning a Ph.D. in One Health through the EGH department in the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions.

Graduating with his master’s degree in 2019, Acosta worked as a research assistant and project manager for a year prior to enrolling as a Ph.D. student. Alongside McKune and Drs. Sandra Russo and Nargiza Ludgate, Acosta spent time in Uganda studying vaccine access for a viral disease called peste des petits ruminants

Acosta began the Ph.D. program in fall of 2020, despite being limited in his research because of COVID-19. Nevertheless, he took the opportunities presented and engaged actively in research centered on the impacts of the pandemic on mental health in children, gaining newfound experience.

More recently, Acosta has been working on his dissertation research, studying climate change, resilience and food security in communities in Mauritania and Senegal. 

The two African countries have large pastoral populations, meaning they rely on livestock and often move based on where their livestock will thrive, which is mostly determined by availability of water and grazing areas.

Acosta carries out surveys in Linguere with the help of Omar Pene, our field assistant and translator. Pene helped Acosta translate from Wolof and Pular to French.

Mauritania and Senegal are located in the Sahel, a geographic strip of semi-arid and arid land just south of the Sahara Desert, where populations are highly dependent on rainfed livestock and agriculture. 

Coupled with their dependence on temperature and precipitation required for crop or livestock fodder production, populations in this region are especially vulnerable to climate change due to predicted significant change in climate hazards in this region, namely excessive heat and changes in quantity and timing of rains.

“Something we all need is access to nutrient-dense foods,” he said. “There are lots of people in these countries without access to a nutritious diet or the resources that we often take for granted here and even back home [in Colombia].”

Additionally, with climate change and hazards such as heat, flooding and droughts, Acosta and his team are documenting more and more stressors of the food production system, limiting these communities’ access to important nutrients. 

With the help of McKune and her broader research on the social and institutional factors of resilience to climate change, Acosta studies the best approach to tackle these countries’ vulnerabilities.

“My research has really helped me understand how public health is embedded in a larger system…” he said. “…More specifically, the intersection of public health, economics and political science.”

Acosta working at the launch of the project with Dr. Renata Serra in the West African Research Center in Dakar, Senegal. Here, they worked on finalizing the data collection plan with local collaborators and Co-PIs from Senegal, Mauritania, Chad and Niger.

Acosta credits McKune as his biggest mentor throughout his master’s and Ph.D. experience at UF, guiding and pushing him throughout his research.

“Daniel has a lot of strengths,” McKune said. “But among the greatest are his endless curiosity, his openness to learn new things, strong organizational skills and internal drive to be the best at whatever he does.”

Additionally, McKune said Acosta has matured into the “listen and reflect” mindset that is required of great science.

“He is much more willing to be critical of what he reads and hears in the academic community, he thinks deeply about it and he sees ways for improvement,” she said. “This takes time and maturity, and it’s been a joy for me to watch it grow in Daniel.”

Moreover, learning through a One Health lens has pushed Acosta to consider public health crises from multiple perspectives. 

“From the micro- to macro-scale, I think it’s very valuable for students to learn from a One Health education,” he said.

In the future, Acosta will continue his research in Mauritania this May. He will graduate with his Ph.D. in 2025, hoping to take his research on food security to new pursuits. 

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