When we decided to devote a volume of Evotis entirely to the work of future leaders in One Health and wildlife, the Students for One Health (SOH) immediately sprang to mind.

We included stories about student work being done in Knights Landing, California and Nicaragua to give an up-close glimpse into how these projects function on the ground-level, but we also wanted to zoom out and think about how these clubs fit into the larger educational experience at UC Davis and at universities around the world. As you’ll read below, the student-driven structure offers an abundance of opportunities and can be of great value to the school. 

To explore those opportunities, we tapped Paulina Zielinska, DVM, MPVM, MPH and Haley McDermott, MPH, both of whom are One Health enthusiasts who have worked closely with student-run projects at UC Davis for the past several years. 


By Paulina Zielinska & Haley McDermott


Within the last three years, the Students for One Health club, housed within the UC Davis One Health Institute, has established two successful student-run projects.  Focused on important international and domestic issues, “The Knights Landing One Health Clinic” in California and “One Health, Nicaragua” are quickly gaining recognition for their achievements.

Last March, club members won three out of four poster awards for their work at the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges Conference, and SOH projects are continuing to push forward with accelerating momentum.  You can see their posters and hear from students here.

As word spreads about these recent successes, many faculty and UC Davis affiliates have become curious about the quality, rationale and sustainability of the student-run projects model. This discussion is more important now than ever, as similarly structured student-run projects have begun taking shape at schools around the globe.

UCD veterinary students at the One Health Fair in Knights Landing, CA | Photo by Paulina Zielinska

Student-run vs. traditional projects

The traditional, faculty-driven project is the model we are all most familiar with: A faculty member with vast knowledge and expertise in one or more areas selects or is funded to study a particular topic. The faculty member then forms a study design, develops hypotheses, and recruits staff and students who may perform data collection, assist with analyses and write-ups, deliver poster presentations, etc. In this model, students gain an incredible research skill-set, have the opportunity to develop a very meaningful mentor relationship and may even find a passion or interest in the area they are studying — sometimes launching into an alternate career trajectory that may not have been considered otherwise. Finally, faculty-driven projects are funded which is a great benefit for students, and faculty are able to support them more fully.

Conversely, student-run projects start with passionate students who have a deep interest in topics or areas for which there is no obvious opportunity to become involved. These projects are led by students who seek hands-on experience and the opportunity to apply their knowledge in a setting beyond those experiences readily available and outside of the traditional academic model. The disadvantage of this model is that these projects are hard to fund, and private support is critical to sustain them. However, because these projects are not constrained by the bounds of University-driven or externally funded research, they may promote innovation and creativity beyond what might be expected in pre-planned projects. The students, through trial and error and intrinsic motivation, gain skills in project development, leadership, communication, collaboration, interdisciplinary teamwork, project evaluation and sustainability that may otherwise be hard to come by.

The varied type of work inherent in these projects prepares students for future professions by providing an introduction and exposure to a variety of careers. Students find out what they enjoy and discover where their natural skills are at their sharpest. This valuable insight is not only gained through real-world experience, it is practiced in an incredibly rewarding and therefore effective setting. Many students we have worked with continue to cite working on these projects as one of their best experiences in school.

The collaborative approach of student-led projects also has networking value. Exposure to a variety of organizations along the way helps students connect with one another, as well as with faculty. In this model, the students are turning problem-focused ideas into action-oriented solutions, and they are doing it together. 

Value to the school

The student-run model is not just beneficial for students; it can be great for the University that houses them. Student-run projects provide an attractant for recruiting entrepreneurially-minded graduate students. These projects also expand and strengthen connections with other Universities and organizations through faculty, staff, organization, and community participation. They increase the potential for University research findings and publications, development and piloting of novel programs, and initiatives for training and education, all while providing an alternative student experience without increasing the daily work burden on faculty who do not have the capacity to mentor additional students.

Finally, they provide students with more opportunities and choices to complement their learning experience, enhancing their overall satisfaction with their education. 

UC Davis veterinary students introduce medical students to the various groups they have been partnering with in Sabana Grande, Nicaragua | Photo by Laura Budd

Finding a balance 

To those who have been closely involved with student-run projects here at UC Davis, it is clear that they are invaluable for faculty, students, and the University as a whole. But it’s also clear that these benefits will only reach their potential if the student-run projects are provided with a mechanism for support and guidance.

Students are demonstrably willing and able to carry out successful, innovative projects, but some level of active faculty support and mentorship is also required for sustainability. Student-run projects can easily become derailed or even overwhelmed and overburdened as students seek answers to questions along the way – and many questions could be answered by faculty who have vast experience with such issues.

At the same time, if you tilt too far in the direction of the faculty-driven projects, you end up with a top-down approach that adds to the faculty’s workload and stifles the innovation, creativity, and learning-by-doing approach that is so crucial to the student-run model.

The success of the model, therefore, depends on the ability to balance priorities between student and faculty needs.  This is not a new concept. Public Health, business, and development fields alike have long debated balancing top-down vs bottom-up priorities. What may be needed is a focus on the “middle-out” approach; meaning innovation should originate from the students, but guidance should still be provided from the top. A middle out approach further fosters student’s professional growth and networking skills, allowing for more collegial ties between faculty and students as information is exchanged to enhance project success. UC Davis faculty have already begun to facilitate this type of exchange by providing support and guidance on the One Health Advisory and One Health Student Project Advisory Boards.

Moving forward (at UC Davis and elsewhere) it is important that this balance remains at the forefront of the discussion. Student-led projects will only continue to prosper if faculty, staff, and the students continue to work together as one team.  


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