While studying biology on her way to becoming the region’s top infectious diseases expert, Jill Henning also minored in theater as a college undergraduate.
An associate professor of biology and undergraduate research coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, Henning has spent the past 14 months putting both disciplines – science and stage – to good use as the face and voice of the community’s COVID-19 education efforts.
She’s a member of the group In This Together Cambria, working on its many projects, including development of an informational website and production of a series of virtual forums on aspects of the coronavirus. Henning serves on the Cambria County COVID-19 Task Force, and has advised Westmont Hilltop School District on its response to the pandemic.
“This movement has expanded to so much more than I thought it could be, because I have so many great partners that are committed to helping the community in so many ways,” Henning said.
Good friend and In This Together Cambria partner Shelley Johansson recalled that Henning had a role in last summer’s production of “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” with the Community Arts Center of Cambria County – done outdoors and with social-distancing guidelines in place – even as the COVID-19 effort was building.
“Jill is a thespian and ... she’s a university professor specializing in infectious diseases and teaches every day in the classroom,” Johansson said. “So she is literally the ideal person to educate the community about COVID through In This Together Cambria. She is not only an expert in the subject matter, but also knows how to explain it in an approachable and appealing way.”
UPJ President Jem Spectar, who called Henning “a real star” and the “best person we have on infectious diseases,” said he went to her last March and pulled Henning away from her work on Lyme disease to focus on COVID-19 and its impact on the Johnstown region.
“We recognized that this was a concern that needed broader community awareness, and greater understanding of the issues related to the pandemic,” Spectar said. “Above all, we needed to warn people of the impending risks.
“It felt like we needed to do this as a public service for our community. It’s what universities should do. We should find ways to share our expertise.”
Henning graduated from United High School in Armagh in 1998, taking with her a background in dance as well as a dream of becoming a scientist who helped stop deadly afflictions.
When she was in middle school, 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 go into that kind of work,” Henning said, “going into places people were running out of, discovering what was making them sick.”
She studied biology, specializing in infectious diseases, at Washington & Jefferson University and then at the University of Pittsburgh’s renown Graduate School of Public Health.
At W&J in Washington, Pennsylvania, she also took classes in the theater department.
“I needed an outlet that wasn’t science,” she said. “And oh my goodness, it has helped so much.”
At Pitt, Henning specialized in microbiology with population dynamics, earning a Ph.D. in infectious disease microbiology. One focus of her work was prostate cancer in African American men.
More recently, she 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 preparing to join a statewide commission to track and address the problem.
Then COVID-19 arrived.
“Every year, I tell my students that the next disease we’re talking about is going to be a coronavirus,” she said.
“Since COVID hit, I’ve been getting so many emails from former students.”
Henning said Specter developed a “tool kit” for isolation and quarantine during a pandemic – “all of the things the CDC has now done, we did back in March” – and the president also found funding sources for UPJ’s virus-related research and outreach efforts.
One important project involved comparing the COVID-19 response to what happened during the flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919. Some of the comparative research inspired a movie project, “We Are All In This Together: Pandemic-Johnstown 1918,” led by another UPJ colleague, Paul Douglas Newman, and starring fellow Johnstown actress Kate Davis.
“We were trying to reach a different population, the people who might not be comfortable with the science,” Henning said. “That history has already been written.”
Henning said she went into public health, and specifically infectious conditions, “because I wanted to work to keep my community and the global community safer from contagious diseases. I identify as an empath; it was an ideal choice to use my love of science to help my community.”
And to put that minor in theater to good use.
“I’ve spent my life getting ready for this,” Henning said.
“I’m honored that I get to help my community, and that the community would want that.”
Chip Minemyer is the editor of The Tribune-Democrat and TribDem.com, and CNHI regional editor for Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia. He can be reached at 814-532-5091. Follow him on Twitter @MinemyerChip.