When it comes to infectious diseases, new dean of School of Public Health is up for the challenge

Despite uncertain times, a “wonderful future” is ahead, he says
July 31, 2020

As his fingers direct the computer mouse, his eyes quickly scan through the morning’s emails. He is locked in concentration. Steam rises from his cup of coffee while his newly adopted cat softly purrs at his feet under the desk.

Ding!

A reminder notification for a virtual meeting with colleagues appears on the computer screen, breaking his concentration. His fingers stab at the keyboard, typing in the necessary credentials to log in for the virtual meeting. A moment passes as the computer thinks, and suddenly his beaming smile appears on the screen.

“Howdy, everyone!” he says.

It’s another busy day working from home as the new dean for the Texas A&M University School of Public Health. Shawn G. Gibbs, PhD, MBA, CIH, joins the school during a time when working from home, wearing face masks and staying 6 feet apart from one another is the new normal.

However, Gibbs is comfortable in a pandemic and infectious disease environment. As an internationally recognized industrial hygienist, Gibbs has worked to protect and enhance the health of people by disrupting the transmission of highly infectious diseases. His research has contributed to national policies, procedures and best practices for responders and health care workers to safely treat patients with Ebola virus disease, COVID-19 and other highly infectious diseases.

“I don’t get alarmed too easily,” Gibbs said. “In a situation like this, the school needs a leader that is aware of the risks and can help mitigate them, as well as put them into perspective.”

Gibbs has already dived into a new project with a diverse team at Texas A&M that he hopes will provide a better picture of COVID-19 spread on campus. The project involves measuring viral loads of infectious diseases within the campus’ wastewater to help predict infectious disease outbreaks. The research team includes faculty from the Dwight Look College of Engineering, the Bush School of Government and Public Service, the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, the Institute for Genome Sciences and Society, the GeoInnovation Service Center, and the Office of the Vice President for Research.

“We would like to set up a wastewater sampling program at Texas A&M that may be a leading-edge indicator for the spread of COVID-19 as the students come back to campus,” Gibbs explained. “The age range of our student population is one of the fastest growing for illness in the nation, but students may be asymptomatic while going about their day. If we had the ability to sample wastewater and follow the increases in viral loads, it could tell us when we’re starting to see growth trends in COVID-19 within our population before we start seeing an increase in cases in clinics and hospitals.”

The wastewater sampling program is also in line with one of Gibbs’ long-term goals for the School of Public Health—to help lead students and faculty to more One Health-focused research projects. The One Health perspective focuses on multiple disciplines working together to improve our world through research in the human, animal and environmental sciences. Understanding how each field interacts with one another and affects global health and security can be useful. For instance, pandemics can start with infectious diseases spreading among animals, and through certain environmental factors, the disease can spread to humans. Texas A&M offers a unique opportunity to collaborate with experts from all three fields, within one university.

“I see a lot of potential for collaborations, especially with veterinary medicine,” Gibbs said.

Gibbs also hopes that the role public health has been taking on campus and throughout the country can help emphasize to both the public and researchers in other fields the importance of public health research and practice—another one of his long-term goals as the School of Public Health’s new dean.

“One thing you see with public health practice and research is that during a crisis, such as the recent pandemic, everyone emphasizes the importance of public health,” Gibbs said. “Once the crisis is over, support and funding tend to decrease. Then, when another public health crisis arises, people realize again that they should support more public health. It’s a cycle that I’d like to try and disrupt.”

Gibbs further explained that this cycle occurs because public health research and practice is often focused on preventing health crises. So if health crises are avoided (because of public health research and practice), people often don’t realize that a health problem ever had the potential to occur. The key is to help people realize that much of our knowledge on keeping us, our communities and our population healthy can be attributed to constant, ongoing public health practice and research.

“Continuous investment in public health research and practice has a lot of preventative health benefits, and I want to help people develop a better understanding of that,” Gibbs said.

Part of investing in public health research and practice is designing more opportunities for college students to get involved in public health and supporting the public health workforce. Historically, degrees in public health were often only offered at the graduate level at universities. Texas A&M offers a vibrant and fast-growing undergraduate degree in public health, but Gibbs wants to take the program to the next level. He plans to help the program grow and train undergraduate students for careers in public health during his time as dean.

“Nationally, undergraduate public health education has only been around for about the last 20 years,” Gibbs said. “We need more public health education and training for undergraduates who can immediately enter the workforce or go into Master of Public Health programs as they later target more advanced jobs.”

Despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, Gibbs is fearless on every front. He looks forward to working with the faculty, staff and students to push the School of Public Health to continue to make positive impacts in the community. Overall, he hopes to lead the school through these challenging times to help “improve the quality and quantity of life for Texans.”

“The School of Public Health has a wonderful future ahead of it that will very much compliment its marvelous past,” Gibbs said. “I’m excited to be here at such a prestigious institution.”

-by Callie Rainosek

— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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