“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.