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School of Public Health panel highlights new initiatives, areas of focus

SPH faculty discuss the future of public health research and education

The School of Public Health hosted its 2022 State of the School Address at Ruth J. Simmons Quadrangle Thursday. The event featured remarks from Provost Richard Locke P’18, Interim Dean of the SPH Ronald Aubert and Academic Dean Megan Ranney MPH’10, followed by a SPH faculty panel discussion about the future of pandemic preparedness.

Since its founding in 2013, the SPH has expanded in both size and impact, Locke said. Funding from the National Institutes of Health, applications for the master of public health program and undergraduate research and education have been “thriving on every indicator,” he said. 

By working with the Rhode Island Department of Health, the Warren Alpert Medical School and other collaborators across the University, the SPH has been able to have both a local and national impact, he added.

Ranney highlighted recent initiatives from the SPH which have created “a school that transforms how we study, teach and create public health locally, nationally and across the globe.”

This year, the SPH launched a new online MPH program designed to offer working professionals around the globe access to public health education. The Health Equity Scholars program, another scholarship and leadership development program for MPH students, expanded from 12 to 19 scholars this year, she added.

Ranney also highlighted some of the changes the SPH will undergo in the near future.

In the coming year, a new full-time director of community engagement will work closely with President Christina Paxon P’19 to expand collaboration with the Rhode Island community. Next year, the SPH will launch a new master’s program to allow existing clinicians to earn a one-year degree in public health. The SPH is also working to increase financial aid for public health students.

“I am confident that a new, more diverse generation of public health leaders will drive action where it is needed most, often in communities that are overlooked,” Ranney said.

Following the remarks, a panel of SPH faculty, including Jennifer Nuzzo, director of the Pandemic Center at Brown and professor of epidemiology, Mark Lurie, professor of epidemiology, and William Goedel PhD’20, professor of epidemiology, was welcomed to the stage. Aubert kicked off the discussion by asking panelists about the importance of data collection in combating ongoing and emerging threats to public health, including COVID-19, monkeypox and new reports of polio in New York.

“The data tells us these (public health issues) are hazards of our time, and we need to prepare for them like we would for other hazards, like fires or natural disasters,” Nuzzo said. But new data is needed on how to best prepare for these events to better address them in the future, she added.

Lurie discussed his new NSF-funded project, Mobility Analysis for Pandemic Prevention Strategies, which establishes a collaboration between public health, math, engineering and computer science researchers to study pandemic spread. The researchers are currently focused on developing wearable tracking devices to “harness data on mobility, population data and social interaction,” Lurie said.

”Unless we really understand the way humans interact, we’re going to be doomed to policies that are very broad,” Lurie said. “If we, on the other hand, are able to specifically understand the context and environments under which certain people interact, then we are able to create interventions that are specifically targeted to those behaviors.”

This project is just one example of the importance of interdisciplinary research in creating innovative solutions to public health problems, Lurie said. As the discipline evolves to combat new public health threats, collaboration among disciplines is becoming increasingly important, she added.

“It was a screaming truth over the past two years that some of our largest problems in responding to COVID were not just limited to medical and public health constraints,” Nuzzo explained. Input from history, sociology, political science and economics scholars is necessary “to make sure what we’re planning makes sense for our communities … (and) is sufficient to meet the needs of the people.”

The conversation moved to the importance of public health researchers and advocates communicating with community members. 

“Often when we’re talking about data-driven decision-making, we’re talking about data generated in clinical settings or generated in the academy, but the people who are most directly impacted by these new challenges bring a lot of knowledge and data of their own,” Goedel said. 

Working with communities marginalized due to race or socioeconomic status is especially important, he noted. “These are communities that are structurally vulnerable that are going to be hit first, hit hardest and come out of a surge last.”

Public health interventions that focus on marginalized communities start in the classroom, Nuzzo said. 

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“Brown is truly leading the effort to increase the diversity of students who are here. We cannot go through another pandemic with leaders who do not come from the communities that have been hardest hit by this virus,” Nuzzo said. “We need to make sure to train the next generation of leaders so we can develop plans that are reflective of the experiences and realities of the communities that the plans are intended for.”

In his courses, Goedel emphasizes the importance of applying public health scholarship to the outside world, he said. He teaches epidemiology as a tool his students can use to study everything from classic models of disease transmission to social issues. In his graduate course, his students work with the Rhode Island Department of Health to apply spatial analysis skills to local health issues. 

“I hope we can develop more of these practice-based opportunities for students so they can see where their skills go,” Goedel said.

The panel concluded with a discussion on the importance of good health communication.

Public health scholars need to address misinformation and disinformation “head on,” Goedel said. With a constantly changing communication landscape, it’s important to utilize tools like social media to craft effective messages, he explained.

“Communication exercises need to be incorporated into every corner of our training,” he said. “It’s not just, ‘Did you do the science?’ It’s, “Did you say it in a way that gets to the person who needs to hear it?”



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