Professor in touch with civic duty

Matthew Allen

The typical professor at a research university spends most of his time bogged down in the specificities of his research, but Dr. Mark Ebell, associate professor in the College of Public Health, is an outlier.

He touches civic life through involvement with the Oconee Riivers Greenway Commission, writing for medial publications, and teaching students.

As chair of the Oconee Rivers Greenway Commission, he leads fifteen fellow members of various interests like land conservation, efficient water use, alternative transportation, and recreational trail making.

The group is a secondary agency of the government aiding in sustaining and enhancing the river and natural corridors surrounding it.

Biking and trail design are a couple interests of Ebell’s, and he brings unique knowledge of these subjects to the commission’s discussion. Tours through the Netherlands and Germany have given him the fundamental knowledge of trail design necessary to improve these systems in Athens-Clarke County and Georgia, as a whole. He aims to create a similar system in his own community for alternative transport as well as recreational purposes.

“These countries have an incredibly extensive network,” Ebell said, during an interview inside his Coverdell-center office on Monday. “It’s easy to ride on the trails for 500 miles with cars alongside for only five.”

However, he is unsure of how long it will take to receive approval for such a project.

“It’s amazing how slowly the government works, sometimes, and a lot of people have to sign off for it to happen,” Ebell said. “It can be a little frustrating.”

Right now, the commission is guiding the development of a greenway — on the North Oconee River expanding from East Broad Street to College Station Road — that’s funded by SPLOST money from 2005.  And they will supervise the creation of another greenway corridor, undergoing construction over the next six or seven years, that will make the system more robust and complete, according to Ebell. The second project is also funded by county SPLOST – the source of his hope and grief.

A 22-page plan for the countywide greenway system is available on the county government Web site. These plans are the product of his commission’s effort, but Ebell’s ideas cross county lines; he, eventually, hopes to see an expansive statewide trail system.

“We’re working within Clarke County and also trying to partner with groups in neighboring counties,” he said.

Several government bodies are discussing the prospects connecting Athens’ trails with other ones in the state– like the Silver Comet and Firefly trails; this is a long-term goal.

After describing such a utopia, he sighed, leaned back in his chair, and smiled pensively.

Part of Ebell’s job as chair includes listening to the suggestions of other board members, like Ben Emanuel – former city editor of Flagpole magazine, Oconee river keeper, and fellow commission member.

Emanuel bases the committee’s position on water use. He advocates for sustainability practices, pollution control, and public education. He has worked with Ebell for several years and appreciates the perspective that Ebell brings to the group.

“It’s great having his professionalism,” Emanuel said. “He’s a big advocate for public health.”

Ebell worked for 18 years as a family practitioner and is now an editor for two medical publications. His career experience, along with his research at the University in the College of Public Health, offers the commission a unique angle to aid its influence.

His professional past and experience advocating for bettering the health of the public give added weight to the commission’s proposals for greenways — allowing the public another way to be healthy through recreational use or as an alternative transportation method.

The U.S.’s widespread obesity, which is partly the consequence of a sedentary lifestyle, is  a pressing issue, and if  the commission can provide a way for the public to exercise,  to incorporate public health, then their proposals are more likely to be accepted.

When you support the health of the public, local officials are more accepting of your proposal than if you were to lobby solely from a sustainability or environmental protection perspective, according to Emanuel. There is a stronger possibility that more people will support your cause when you appeal to different audiences and constituencies.

“It’s all about getting support,” Ebell said. “Each initiative has its own constituencies, and it’s my job to consider all of them.”

When not working with the commission, Ebell can be found in one of his offices — located in the Coverdel and Chemistry buildings — meeting with both undergraduate and master’s students and performing research.

What does Ebell spend the brunt of his timing doing?

“Students are always in my office asking questions or getting help on assignments,” Ebell chuckled.

His most recent research publications deal with influenza and CPR; more specifically, he focuses on how doctors can better use their data to give the most effective treatment to their patients. His research breaks new ground in influenza research — weighing the timing of symptoms to more efficiently diagnose patients.

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