The School of Public and Population Health at UTMB is preparing health care professionals for pandemics and improving the community's overall well-being.

Dr. M. Kristen Peek leads the Department of Population Health and Health Disparities at UTMB as the dean ad interim. Peek has been at UTMB for more than 20 years and has served in educational leadership roles for the past seven years.

“I am absolutely delighted to have the opportunity to set up a new school and to be in the dean position,” Peek said. “We have many great things ahead of us, and this is a very exciting time.”

While UTMB has operated a large public health program for more than 20 years, this expansion is partly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Peek said.

“The pandemic taught us many lessons about our current public health infrastructure, including how critical our next generation of public health professionals, scientists and scholars will be in meeting the needs of ensuring a healthy Texas and beyond,” she said.

Texas, along with other states, is facing a critical shortage of public health professionals. UTMB is training more experts in this field, said Associate Dean for Student Affairs Dr. John Prochaska.

"The public health workforce is understaffed,” he said. “We have some amazing people doing amazing work in public health. As we have learned from the pandemic, there is a large need for the profession, for people trained in the different sciences and the practice of public health."

Nearly one in three public health workers say they are considering leaving their organization within the next year, and nearly half are planning to leave or retire within the next five years, a survey by the de Beaumont Foundation discovered.

"There is a growing demand and just the overall recognition of the importance of public health practice," Prochaska said. "There is a bubble regarding the upcoming demand and open positions due to retirements or people moving on to different careers."

While there are still many opportunities to come, the school offers five primary educational programs, providing opportunities for graduate students, physicians and medical students. And the school plans to expand with some new master’s degrees.

"We are working on a master’s of science in biostatistics," Prochaska said. "We have our current doctoral program in population health, sciences, rehabilitation sciences, as well as other programs that are continuing to grow as well. We are looking forward to meeting the needs of the state and beyond."

The School of Public and Population Health at UTMB stands out from other schools in the United States as a leader in health equity research and education.

“All of our faculty and all of our courses focus on some aspect of health equity,” Peek said. “We are truly united in that aspect. In addition, we have some unique programs, like our Bioethics and Health Humanities and our Aerospace Medicine training programs. We are building a global health and emerging diseases educational program. With our Galveston National Laboratory on campus, we have an incredible opportunity to bridge public health with basic sciences in emerging diseases.”

Students who study at the School of Public and Population Health can go on to find jobs in a wide variety of careers, Prochaska said.

"We have graduates that go to work with the FDA, environmental agencies and nonprofits,” he said. “There is a whole range of opportunities in public health. It's not just checking viruses and giving injections, although it is a very important role—it's not just limited to that."

It includes so much more from well-baby checks to diabetes tests to encouraging people to be more active.

“Public health research, scholarship and practice promotes disease and injury prevention, healthy lifestyles, and environments, but public health also actively responds to crises, such as, of course, the novel coronavirus,” Peek said. “The vision of the SPPH is ‘health equity for all,’ and the mission is to lead innovative public health education, translational research and evidence-informed practice and policy through authentic collaborations in the Gulf Coast region, Texas and the world.”

Martina Michael is studying for a master’s of public health in epidemiology at the school. Among Michael's favorite aspects of the school are the small class sizes and the faculty's focus on students.

"UTMB has a very diverse faculty and apart from that [a few] main things that you don't find at other universities," Michael said. "Your classmates will also be very diverse."

Due to the school's small class size, Michael said students feel their voices are heard and matter at the school.

"You can actually reach out to the faculty, and they won't take a week to reply,” she said. “The faculty is able to engage with the students more because of the small class size.”

Prospective students can learn more on the School of Public and Population Health website.

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