Release Date: March 8, 2021
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Katherine Connelly is an ardent advocate for public health. Seeing how the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged every corner of the globe has only furthered Connelly’s fervor for the field.
“I just wish I knew about the profession sooner,” says Connelly, a student in the master of public health program in the University at Buffalo’s School of Public Health and Health Professions.
Thanks to COVID-19, the profession is more front-and-center than it’s ever been. The phrase “public health” has been about as ubiquitous as “social distancing” over the past year. Many more people now understand what the field is, and the critical role these practitioners play in times of crisis, such as a global pandemic.
“The pandemic has shown the world the value of public health,” says Jean Wactawski-Wende, PhD, dean of UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions, which has seen significant growth at both the undergraduate and graduate levels over the past several years.
“The growth in our public health programs is clear evidence that young people are heeding the call to join this meaningful field.”
Interest in the profession has been steadily building in recent years, but many public health schools have seen a bump within the past year in particular. That’s true in UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions, where applications to the bachelor’s program in public health increased by 70% compared to last year.
Until recently, public health was viewed as a “silent profession,” says Sarahmona Przybyla, PhD, assistant dean and director of undergraduate public health programs in UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions.
“Frankly, it’s not a discipline that is that well known in the general public,” she says. “Most students I interact with don’t say to me ‘When I was in kindergarten, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in public health.’”
Another challenge was that for a long time, few high school guidance counselors were aware of public health as an undergraduate course of study. They often advised prospective high school students who expressed an interest in the field to major in biology or another related discipline first, then apply to a graduate program in public health.
“What used to happen was students would come to UB planning to pursue a different major. They would take an intro to public health course because it met some requirement for that particular major, and then they would become interested in learning more about public health,” Przybyla says. “A lot of them would say they didn’t know they could major in public health as an undergraduate.”
Parents also weren’t as familiar with it. Plus, they were concerned about the job and career prospects for their child after obtaining a degree in public health.
“The reality is, there’s tons of job potential out there,” Przybyla says.
Traditional public health roles include working in health departments, hospital systems, governmental organizations and health-related research. Newer roles include working in community health by providing health education and health programing; developing interventions to address health inequities at local or national non-profits; planning and supporting healthy environments with access to parks, walking paths, and bike lanes; promoting healthy behaviors through wellness programs.
Erie County Commissioner of Health Gale Burstein, MD, agrees about the need for public health professionals. “The COVID-19 pandemic exposed significant gaps in our public health infrastructure. We need every person considering a career in public health to step forward and be a part of this profession. There are so many ways in which to contribute to disease prevention and health promotion,” added Burstein, who holds faculty appointments in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and the School of Public Health and Health Professions at UB.
Johnathan Lim, a junior biostatistics major, switched his minor from economics to public health as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lim is from Singapore, and he’s seen firsthand how different countries have handled the pandemic.
“Before COVID-19, public health was extremely overlooked,” Lim says. “After graduating, I hope to take a deeper dive and help out in any COVID-19 research that can contain the pandemic as soon as possible, then the world can focus on other issues such as leukemia, Alzheimer’s, and prevention of future SARS related pandemics, to name a few.”
While UB’s undergraduate public health program numbers are on the rise, the growth at the graduate level is just as great.
Since 2017, enrollment in the master of public health (MPH) program has tripled, and today it has more than 200 students, many of whom are helping agencies address COVID-19.
“They have been essential in the public health response to the pandemic,” says Kim Krytus, assistant dean/director of graduate public health programs in the School of Public Health and Health Professions.
Since March 2020, dozens of the school’s MPH students and new graduates have served on the front lines, helping health departments in Western New York and across New York State, as well as hospital systems such as Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center and Erie County Medical Center, to track and report on COVID-19 transmissions and hospitalizations, Krytus adds.
They’ve also conducted contact tracing, worked on vaccine safety and effectiveness research, and assisted in COVID-19 testing and vaccine delivery. Since 2016, the school has had a 100% job placement rate for MPH graduates. “UB’s MPH grads get hired, and today there are even more job opportunities for them with the renewed focus on public health,” says Krytus. “We need as many public health professionals in the field as possible.”
UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions launched a fully online MPH in 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, to complement its on-campus, in-person program. In developing the program, school leadership took a thoughtful approach to ensure the program would work well for online students, wherever they might be. It’s become one of the school’s fastest growing MPH concentrations, allowing students outside of the Buffalo area, and in some cases, outside of the U.S., to enroll in a program ranked 37th by U.S. News & World Report.
The flexibility of the online MPH program attracted Nidhi Simlote, MD, to pursue a degree she thought would be otherwise unattainable while completing her medical residency at Arnot Ogden Medical Center (AOMC) in Elmira, New York.
Sarah Cercone Heavey, PhD, director of online MPH programs at UB and a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior, worked with Simlote to map out how she could complete her MPH coursework while doing her medical residency — a job that consists of working anywhere from 40 to 80 hours a week.
“I thought fitting in an MPH was a dream rather than a possible reality. But Dr. Heavey helped me plan each semester,” says Simlote. “I’ve been able to combine my residency rotations and MPH requirements. I worked to educate residents about the AOMC COVID-19 call center and outpatient COVID-19 care as my field training assignment.”
Currently, Simlote is working with her co-residents and Heavey on a project exploring a possible intervention for contraceptive initiation in the Elmira addiction and psychiatric patient populations. “I am actually combining my passion for medicine with my passion for public health to make a difference in my community,” says Simlote.
She says her public health training is filling a hole in her heart that medicine could not. “COVID-19 has really brought public health into the limelight. It’s even more important now to realize how we can integrate medicine and public health.”
Connelly is nearly finished with her MPH program and has applied to the epidemiology PhD program in UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions.
She recalls learning about COVID-19 in real time last spring. “My first course of the semester was on infectious diseases, and then COVID-19 hit within a week of classes starting,” she says.
“As my professor was teaching the class, I was noticing these patterns in the real world. I could immediately step in and help where I was needed,” says Connelly, who, as part of her MPH field training, is currently assisting with program and policy development for COVID-19 vaccines.
“I learned all of that in real time in my courses,” she says.