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Public Health Program Celebrates Fifth Anniversary

Public Health Program Celebrates Fifth Anniversary

As the College of Natural Sciences’ public health program celebrates its fifth anniversary this year, we visit with some of the people who know the program best.

The Faculty Member

Leanne FieldDr. Leanne Field, the driving force behind the creation of the public health program, notes it was the first undergraduate degree of its kind in Texas when the degree was launched in 2010. Students pursuing the BS degree program receive an interdisciplinary education in many areas of public health and can focus on 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.

While at a 2002 conference on emerging infectious diseases, Field was inspired to start the program listening to an Institute of Medicine panel that focused on microbial threats to health.

“One of the largest threats they identified was the lack of a trained public health workforce,” said Field in a 2010 interview. “These documented workforce shortages put us at great risk for threats in this country and globally. After attending that meeting, I made up my mind to return to campus to raise the awareness of public health and public health careers among our students. These efforts culminated in the creation of the BS in Public Health degree.”

This fall the program moves from the Molecular Biosciences Department to the School of Human Ecology. In its new home, the program will seek national accreditation, encourage faculty in the school and across the college to participate in collaborative public health research and expand experiential education opportunities for students. Fields noted: “Providing authentic public health research experiences, such as advanced summer internships in Brownsville that focus on Texas-Mexico border health and hosted by the UT School of Public Health, helps equip students to enter the workforce directly and to gain admission to the top graduate programs in public health nationwide.”

The Fulbright Scholar

Bianca PatelGraduating senior Bianca Patel was recently awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to continue what she started as a student in the public health program.

“I've always been very passionate about service, and I knew that I wanted to graduate with a public service degree,” said Patel. “The public health degree was perfect — not only in that it fulfilled this, but also in that it bridged my passion for the sciences and humanities.”

Patel would like to use the skills she has learned in the program, which include conducting epidemiological assessments, using statistical software and designing public health interventions, to tackle big issues.

“I'm interested in the relationship between food sustainability, sovereignty, and security and human rights (specifically, indigenous),” said Patel. “I will use my public health degree and public policy experience to join the movement to end hunger. Some of my work in Malaysia will involve this. I'm so excited to live, breathe, and serve in this part of the world. I feel like I can actually help solve global issues.”

The Alumnus

Brian LackeyBrian Lackey graduated in 2013, after having focused on the epidemiology of infectious diseases. Lackey is currently working as an epidemiologist in the Bureau of Tuberculosis Control at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene as part of a CDC/CSTE Applied Epidemiology Fellowship. He also served as part of the Ebola response team in New York City last fall.

“I came into college with only a vague idea of what I wanted to do after graduation,” said Lackey. “Public health seemed to have a unique combination of rigorous quantitative methods and a focus on improving health that I hadn’t found in other majors.”

Working with Dr. Richard Taylor, a former CDC epidemiologist who teaches in the program, Lackey first studied the epidemiology of tuberculosis (TB) during his time at UT Austin. He went to the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredía in Lima, Peru and practiced multivariable modeling and analysis of patient data.

“I use the skills and knowledge I developed through the public health degree program every day in working to control TB in New York City,” said Lackey. “It’s a job that requires many distinct skills—everything from biostatistics and data analysis to educating the public and writing reports for scientific audiences.”

The Graduates

Graduating seniors Brandon Ortiz and Lakshmi Gopalakrishnan both came to UT without a clear idea of what they wanted to major in. Ortiz wanted to blend his interest in the natural sciences with the social sciences. Gopalakrishnan wanted to pursue a scientific area that would allow her to work on large-scale projects while also having an area of focus: behavioral health. Both members of the Class of 2015 found the right fit in public health.

Brandon Ortiz“With my public health degree, I feel knowledgeable in the basic sciences while aware of major social issues,” said Ortiz. “I believe it is one of the most versatile degrees available to UT Austin students.”

Ortiz made the most of what he called “the limitless leadership and team-building opportunities available through the public health degree and UT,” for example, participating in the Texas 4000 charity bike ride for cancer from Austin to Alaska.

“Whether it is the high cost of cancer-fighting drugs, advocating for cancer prevention, or early detection, many of these issues will need to be solved by our generation,” said Ortiz. “As future advocates for improving public health, the public health degree equips us to identify and resolve problems in our society. Most importantly, I believe early exposure to these problems will create better leaders for tomorrow.”

Ortiz will head to Baylor College of Medicine in the fall.

Lakshmi GopalakrishnanGopalkrishnan, too, made the most of the experiences available to her and plans to enter a Global Mental Health Master's program in London, led by the King's College Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Neuroscience and The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“I really enjoyed traveling to China on a study abroad Maymester, volunteering in Nicaragua for a public health brigade trip, and interning in Brownsville,” said Gopalakrishnan. “These experiences helped me see the vitality of public health systems design to make macro level, sustainable changes, while it also taught me the importance of human interaction and the need for culturally-sensitive interventions to help individuals make the necessary changes. I learned that good public health interventions focus on empowering and educating the individual while constructing well-designed systems that allow incremental changes to transform lives in a sustainable manner.”


Current UT Austin students may apply now to major in public health in the School of Human Ecology:

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Sunday, 27 November 2022

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