Former student’s loyalty brings her back to School of Public Health

Public health student from inaugural class becomes faculty member and administrator
August 6, 2018

Jennifer M. Griffith, DrPH, has come full circle at Texas A&M School of Public Health, from a member of its inaugural class of 2000 to her current roles as associate dean for public health practice and an instructional associate professor in the department of Health Policy and Management. As the school celebrates its 20-year anniversary this year, Griffith’s is a unique story that reflects its growth.

Griffith’s interest in public health began while pursuing a Bachelor of Science in biology from Texas A&M during a course in food toxicology and safety. “We were discussing salmonella outbreaks in class, and I started wondering, ‘Well, why won’t people wash their hands after handling raw chicken? It’s so simple!’”

Shortly before Griffith’s undergraduate graduation, she learned that Texas A&M was starting a school of public health. Although she had already been accepted to another university for a master’s program in public health, she completed the application in a few days’ time, and upon receiving acceptance, decided to continue her studies at Texas A&M. Following the encouragement of James Robinson, PhD, one of the founding faculty members, she chose social and behavioral health as her major, the only one to do so in her class.

“The first class had around 17 students; we were a small but mighty group. We named ourselves the guinea pigs, and it was an adventure for us. We had classes taught by our dean and really knew him, and he knew our interests as well. It wasn’t unusual for us to go to lunch together. Our faculty were mentoring us both formally and informally beyond the public health field. As I progressed midway through my first year, I realized that I had been exposed to public health for my entire life; I just didn’t know it as public health,” Griffith said.

Griffith’s father was a veterinarian, and some of her earliest memories were of watching him perform animal health checkups at local livestock shows. She realized that many people, like her father, are involved in public health, but don’t recognize the connection. Now, part of her mission is to make people aware of public health as a career, and how it relates to other professions.

Griffith returned to the School of Public Health as a research scientist in 2008, after completing her doctoral degree in public health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and working there for four years. She summarized her decision to return to Texas A&M by quoting Alabama football coach Bear Bryant, “Momma called, and when Momma calls, you just have to come home.”

She is proud of the college, which has grown into a three-story building on Texas A&M’s west campus, an education site in McAllen and a presence at Texas Medical Center, Houston, with its executive master of health administration program. The original master’s program gave way to a doctoral program, and an undergraduate program. The Bachelor of Science in Public Health is designed to provide students with the foundation of health promotion and disease prevention. Graduates are equipped to assess multiple factors that influence public health, as well as to manage health care programs and interventions to elevate quality of life.

“We started with about 17 students in our undergraduate program, and this fall, we will have nearly 500. Part of our growth has to do with the outreach and service the school is doing, helping people recognize the role of public health and giving students an idea about being professionally involved in health care. In addition to becoming a doctor, nurse, pharmacist or dentist, public health is another side of health that isn’t as clinical,” Griffith said.

As associate dean, Griffith leads the Office of Public Health Practice. She links the school with public health practitioners, which helps both faculty to expand research collaborations and students gain practical experience. Griffith facilitates partnerships with local, state and national public health stakeholders so that students can gain practicum experience, receive service-learning opportunities and enhance practice-based research skills.

“I still have the textbook from that food toxicology and safety class. It sits in a prominent place on my bookshelf because I use it to talk to students about how public health is a diverse and vast field. You could start off learning about food safety and end up doing something completely different, such as my career trajectory,” Griffith said.

Griffith sees lifelong learning as a principle that has guided her and the school as well. “You can’t be successful in any field if you feel like once you have finished your degree there is nothing new to learn, because things change so quickly. I see the school as a lifelong learner as well. To provide an analogy, I was here when it was an infant, and now we have passed that gangly teenager stage—now we have the car keys and are heading off into the world. We have come a long way, but there is still a lot of opportunity to grow and continue to develop as a group.”

— Tamim Choudhury

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