School of Public Health celebrates 20-year anniversary

How a Texas rural health initiative has grown into a college with global impact
April 4, 2018

The study of public health uses scientific research to prevent disease, prolong life and promote health across populations. As part of its rural health initiative, the Texas Legislature established the Texas A&M School of Public Health in 1998, and since then, the college has expanded its reach and is improving the science of public health.

“Everyone is familiar with doctors, nurses, dentists and pharmacists; they are the clinical aspect of health, you come into direct contact with them when they treat you,” said Jay Maddock, PhD, dean at the School of Public Health. “Public health is everything else that keeps you healthy. When you turn on the tap and get clean water, go to a restaurant without getting foodborne illness, walk down a sidewalk on a safe street, or receive warning labels on a product, that’s public health. When public health works, it’s usually invisible.”

Building a foundation for public health

A college that started in 1998 inside a small classroom has grown to a three-story building on Texas A&M’s west campus, a second campus in McAllen, a presence in Houston with its executive master of health administration program and an online epidemiology master of public health program. Today, it is a nationally ranked public health school. Since 2008 the school has consistently ranked among the top 25 graduate schools in public health by U.S. News & World Report.

The college remains committed to its foundation and making a positive impact on rural communities in Texas. “We have been working in every county in the state of Texas, to reach the rural population,” said Maddock. “We are also focused on recruiting qualified students from rural areas, who are likely to go back to their rural communities and serve those populations once they graduate. The past 20 years have built our foundation for who we are, our impact on rural communities in Texas, and the next 20 years is taking that across the globe.”

Transforming health with innovative research

The college is conducting cutting-edge research and training students on innovative approaches to solve 21st century public health problems.

“If you look at our faculty, it’s a whole new generation; half of our faculty are under 40. That brings an excitement to our work, and the research questions being addressed are dynamic. This generation is looking at public health problems with a different lens. They are entrepreneurial and are great thinkers; it changes the energy of the school when you have such a young faculty,” said Maddock.

One faculty member, Natalie Johnson, PhD, is studying how prenatal exposure to particle pollution in the air is associated with increased lower respiratory tract infections in infants, which is a global public health concern. This research enables a better understanding of genetic and environmental determinants of infant respiratory health, identifying children at risk of particulate matter-related diseases and establishing preventive strategies.

“We started with a focus in rural Texas—which is still vital to our mission—but now we also have a globalized approach. Natalie Johnson has cohorts in China, and she is looking at exposures there. As a lot of the developing world is experiencing high levels of air pollution, she is looking to see if there are actions taken during pregnancy that can reduce asthma likelihood in children. This research can save millions of kids from asthma in China,” said Maddock.

Another faculty member, Bernard Appiah, DrPH, studied the most effective way to teach children and their parents in Africa about misuse of antibiotics. In many developing nations in Africa, improper usage of antibiotics leads to ineffective treatments, thereby causing fatalities. Appiah’s research team addressed misconceptions through workshops aimed at students and teachers, instructing them on adequately using antibiotics. Interventions such as this can cause the difference between life and death.

Public policy analysis

Part of the school’s mission is identifying health solutions for entire populations, and one of the most effective ways to do that is through public policy based on sound research.

For example, Alva Ferdinand, DrPH, JD, found evidence that state laws restricting texting while driving save lives. Ferdinand testified numerous times before the Texas Legislature, and this past session the state passed a law banning texting while driving, based on her research.

“Her research helped change state law that will save thousands of lives in the future for the state of Texas. That’s the type of work we do; we can inform policymakers on implementing sound policies, that is very impactful work,” Maddock said.

Amy Fairchild, PhD, is another faculty member who has highlighted the necessity of sound policy for public health. She has written that public policy should enable sale and use of products that reduce the number of smokers, even if those products are not risk-free themselves: a strategy called “harm reduction.” As an example, the use of e-cigarettes has not been shown to be completely safe, but there is growing scientific agreement that they are safer than smoking tobacco cigarettes.

Therefore, Fairchild has advised policymakers that although there is some risk of teenagers using e-cigarettes and then trying combustible products, there are policy strategies that can help keep both e-cigarettes (and combustible products) out of the hands of kids while still making less dangerous nicotine delivery devices an affordable, attractive alternative for current smokers.

An expanding student body

The school began with a graduate program and expanded to include an undergraduate program in 2014. In two years’ time, the undergraduate program’s size matched that of the school’s graduate program.

“The undergraduate program has grown from zero to more than 400 students in the fall of 2017. That’s just incredible; this is having a ripple effect throughout our educational spectrum. This lets us get a lot deeper in the master’s degree. We are launching a totally revised core curriculum next academic year that will be one of the most cutting edge in the country. This, in turn, lets us rethink our doctoral program, for a better educational outcome,” said Maddock.

Currently, the school offers one bachelor’s, three master’s and two doctoral degree programs. The school has witnessed significant student growth in all of its programs. In the spring of 2015, there were less than 400 students enrolled, by spring 2018, the number jumped to more than 700 students. And the student body hasn’t just grown, it’s expanded in its representation of the communities it tries to help.

“We have the most diverse student body at Texas A&M, 70 percent come from ethnic minority groups. Our student body represents citizens from all over the state,” said Maddock. “I am proud of the students we are able to recruit; they are amazing, and we have employment placement rates of nearly 100 percent.”

— Tamim Choudhury

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