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The Public Health Czar

The Public Health Czar

For the past six years, Dr. Leanne Field has been working to make The University of Texas at Austin a national leader in preparing students for careers in the field of public health. She’s organized “Disease Detective” conferences that have become a model for, and received funding from, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL). She created the Public Health Internship Program, which places students in internships with local and state health agencies. And, beginning in the fall, she’ll direct the College of Natural Sciences’ new public health major, the first such degree available in Texas and one of only 11 programs in the nation.

I sat down with Dr. Field recently to discuss her passion for public health, the future of the field, and why now’s the time for students to embrace the discipline.

What inspired you, in the first place, to help bring more public health programs to UT?
Dr. Field: I’ve had a passion for infectious diseases and public health since I started my career as a microbiologist at the CDC. That was 38 years ago. But my particular inspiration for launching the initiatives here came when I participated in an International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases in Atlanta in 2002.

I attended an evening panel presented by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) that focused on microbial threats to health. One of the largest threats they identified was the lack of a trained public health workforce. In fact, it’s now estimated that 250,000 individuals will be needed by 2020 to fill vacant positions as public health professionals in the baby boomer generation retire from the field. These documented workforce shortages put us at great risk for threats in this country and globally.

I participated in an open microphone discussion at the end of the session, and emphasized that we weren’t getting the message out to students about public health early enough, when they are thinking about their futures and possible career opportunities. That evening, I made up my mind to come back and make a difference on this campus.

So where did you start?
The first thing I did, in partnership with Dr. Diane Kneeland in Career Services, was to organize our first “Become A Disease Detective: Discover Public Health!” conference in 2003. It was designed to introduce students, faculty and advisors at UT Austin to the field of public health, and to inspire students to consider public health careers. We held lectures, panels and had a modest group of exhibits, featuring the three graduate schools of public health in Texas.

We wanted to let students know that public health is a diverse field and that there are many different kinds of career paths within it. You can become an epidemiologist, a behavioral scientist, a biostatistician or specialize in health policy. You can work in a public health laboratory, supporting outbreak investigations, diagnosing emerging pathogens or understanding epidemics on the molecular level.

The conference was so successful that we repeated it again in 2006 and 2008, and each time it grew and attracted more students. In April 2010, we will host our fourth conference with the generous support of the CDC.  We expect over 750 students to attend and 200 public health professionals. It will be a day filled with 14 scientific presentations, an exhibit hall with the top graduate schools of public health from around the country and lots of fun activities! The keynote session will be presented by the distinguished public health scientist, D.A. Henderson, MD, MPH who will relate how he led the World Health Organization’s program to eradicate smallpox from the globe.

Tell me about the internship program.
We wanted to develop a more permanent opportunity for students to get real life experience in public health, and so in 2004, we launched the UT Austin Public Health Internship program. This program is a collaborative partnership between the School of Biological Sciences here at UT, and public health practice agencies in Texas, primarily the Department of State Health Services, and the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department.

It gives students the opportunity to carry out one semester, goal-oriented research projects under the generous mentorship of public health scientists. The program provides students with a capstone experience for their undergraduate education, and has positively impacted them to pursue careers in public health. Many of our students have been accepted into top graduate programs around the country as a result of their public health internship experiences.

In 2006, the program was expanded to include advanced internships at the UT School of Public Health, Brownsville Regional Campus, focused on Texas/Mexico border health.  Dr. Joseph McCormick and Dr. Susan Fisher-Hoch, who lead the programs there, are world-renowned disease detectives. They’ve now brought their lifetime of experiences to tackle the very tough problems along the border, including the link between tuberculosis and diabetes seen among those living in the Rio Grande Valley.

Students who participate in the 10 week summer program have the chance to work in the arena of international health while in our own country, and it’s very exciting for them. Last summer, two UT Austin students were on the front lines in Brownsville diagnosing the earliest cases of Novel H1N1 influenza among the residents in South Texas. They also had the opportunity to perform some of the first studies characterizing the immunological responses of patients to the brand new virus!

What do students typically do in their internships?
It varies. There is a mix of research projects that includes epidemiology, laboratory science, field investigations, and behavioral science. This spring, three students are working at the UT School of Public Health, Austin Regional Campus with faculty members whose focus is obesity prevention in children. Others are carrying out an epidemiological analysis of tuberculosis treatment completion rates in Austin/Travis county, tracking influenza-like illness in a Texas correctional facility, and analyzing HIV behavioral risk factors among injection drug users in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

Every one of the internships provides the students with an authentic research experience in a public health setting. The results that interns generate from their research projects are used to safeguard the public’s health in Texas. Through this program, the university and its public health partners are helping to educate and train the next generation of public health professionals to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

It is very gratifying that both our “Disease Detective” conferences and the internship program are now recognized as model programs in the nation. The Association of Schools of Public Health and the CDC have created a grant program “Pathways to Public Health Careers and Internships” so that other universities in the country can develop similar programs to ours. In December, we were the recipient of one of these grants and it will fund our internship program this coming year.

What differentiates the study of public health from, say, medicine?
It’s a population-based approach. The point is to understand how you positively change health outcomes not in one individual at a time but in whole populations. That’s really the foundation. A doctor that treats someone in a clinic can cure them of a disease, and that’s an amazing thing to do. But there are many challenges that only a public health-based approach can meet. You think about something like the obesity epidemic in this country, that is impacted by multiple factors —genetic, environmental, social and cultural. Many of our big health problems are so complex that there are no simple models or solutions to meet them.

How does the new Bachelor of Science degree in public health address this complexity?
Our program, which begins in the fall, is designed to prepare our students with a broad foundation in the core areas of public health and to offer them opportunities to explore one of six concentration areas: biostatistics and public health informatics, environmental health, health policy, infectious diseases and public health microbiology, nutrition, and social and behavioral sciences.

We want to equip our graduates to directly enter the workforce as well as gain admission into the best graduate schools of public health and professional programs in medicine, law and public policy. Such training will allow them to have more specialized, high level careers in which they can apply their professional degree within the field of public health.

The IOM has called for an increase in physicians with both MD and Masters in Public Health (MPH) degrees. All of the medical schools in Texas now offer this dual degree option, and we expect that such programs will be attractive options for pre-medical students at UT Austin who choose the B.S. in Public Health major. Our goal is to prepare our students to meet the needs in the state of Texas, the nation and the world. I expect our graduates to go out and make a big impact on some of the tough global health challenges.

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Tuesday, 07 February 2023

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