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The Fence at the Top of the Cliff


fence graphic The Fence at the Top of the Cliff


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Perhaps nothing is so simultaneously inspiring and frightening to any creator as a blank slate, like the one presented a decade ago to the faculty and staff of the WVU School of Public Health — the go-ahead to develop a new college to train the next generation of professionals who protect us and our environment.

“There was no playbook, no institutional template for how you start a new school,” Dr. Jeff Coben said. “We really began with very little direction for how we were going to build this thing — other than we knew for accreditation purposes we had to have a certain number of faculty and a certain number of departments. Everything else was ‘how do we do this?’”


Details were one thing, but what would make this new offshoot of the WVU School of Medicine unique among already-established schools across the country? The answer, Coben said, lay not in programs or even faculty, but in student experience.


That, he said, WVU can provide in spades.

“The partnerships we have, and the experiential learning opportunities that students can get within our school, our emphasis on Appalachia, West Virginia and rural populations — that is one of the things that I think is important, and clearly distinguishes us from the vast majority of other schools of public health,” Coben said.


smiling man, beard, open collar, jacket

Dr. Jeff Coben, dean of WVU's School of Public Health

smiling man, white coat

Dr. Clay Marsh, chancellor and executive dean, WVU Health Sciences 


It's that outward-facing direction that is important to Dr. Clay Marsh, chancellor and executive dean, WVU Health Sciences, who said the School of Public Health has played a vital role in fulfilling WVU’s land-grant mission through practice-based learning, innovative research and community partnerships to improve the future for West Virginians.


“Students and faculty alike are developing solutions with local impact and global significance that address complex public health issues and transform lives,” Marsh said.

Not only is the School of Public Health embedded within a health sciences center where students can work with other students in healthcare professions, they also have access to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and the Monongalia County Health Department within walking distance.


“I don’t think there’s any other institution in the country that has those kinds of resources available, “Coben said.


Since its founding, researchers have delved into ways to reduce teen smoking, the effect of childhood trauma on adult mental health, why some communities are less healthy than others and additional health issues rampant in the state, as well as climate change that affects the world.

Where there's smoke

Geri Dino is the director of WVU’s Prevention Research Center. Competitively funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the WVPRC and Dino have been involved in work “near and dear to her heart” for almost 25 years. Clearly not risk averse, Dino left a tenure-track job, took a salary cut and came to WVU “to do something different” in 1995. That something was to address tobacco use, particularly with youth. A trained psychologist, she had never done research in tobacco use, never worked in public health community engagement. She freely admits there was lots she didn’t know.  Read more about Dino's work. 

smiling woman, short hair

Geri Dino has spent her career at WVU's School of Public Health earning competitive funding for a teen smoking cessation program that went national, helping communities discover their own solutions to their unique health issues and disparities and developing a statewide youth advisory board that is building connections across the country.

Living with the bear

Brittany Smith, a Ph.D. candidate, defines public health professionals as those who go into a community and put into place the things that allow some kind of shift in maladaptive cultural norms. That’s a high-level way of saying they give communities tools to change harmful patterns that may have been in place for generations.  Read more about Smith's journey.

young woman, hair pulled up, bright pink jacket

Brittany Smith found her calling in the WVU School of Public Health. Her goal is to earn her Ph.D. and then teach the next generation of public health professionals.

The air we breathe

Mike McCawley, a clinical associate professor in the department of Occupational and Environmental Health Sciences, likes to quote Coben: “We’re the fence at the top of the cliff, not the ambulance at the bottom.” Because in its best practices public health is about prevention, not reaction, about keeping people healthy.  Read more about McCawley's work. 

man in lab coat stands by equipment

Mike McCawley works with coal miners, communities and the aerospace industry to make sure that the air we breathe is safe from the subsurface to the Moon and even Mars.

Combatting burnout

The unsheltered present more than one problem for the city. Keith Zullig teaches social and behavioral science to his students and provides mindfulness training to first responders who see the “frequent flyers” under the bridges and on the streets. The training makes people aware of their thoughts without letting those thoughts control their behavior, meaning when they see the same people time after time, they can still see the human being, not the condition, in front of them.  Read more about Zullig's work.

man stands in office, arms folded

Keith Zullig's work helps people in stressful jobs be in touch with their emotions and to control their behaviors.

Why are they falling in?

In the messy matters of public health, the cycle of addiction is both the root and the consequence of other health issues that affect a wide swath of U.S. and, particularly, West Virginia, residents. According to Dr. Chris Martin, there’s a seemingly unlikely connection in the causes of both — a decent job.  Read more about Martin's work.

man in shirt and tie stands outside

Dr. Chris Martin is researching the reasons people are susceptible to addiction, including what the lack of a "decent job" means in a person's life.

30 more years

Part of preventing people’s suffering includes health policy, and that’s where Robert Duval’s expertise intersects with the School of Public Health. He has kept a close eye on a public health threat he began teaching about 30 years ago — climate change. Read more about Duval's work. 

man with beard stands outside a large building

Robert Duval has been tracking climate change for 30 years, keeping track of the effects including melting ice caps, rising sea levels and increasingly disastrous weather events.