For the past six years, Dr. Leanne Field has been working to make the university a national leader in preparing students for careers in the field of public health. She has received funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL). She created the Public Health Internship Program, which places students in internships with local and state health agencies. Beginning in the fall she’ll direct the College of Natural Sciences‘ new public health major, the first such degree available in Texas and one of only 11 programs in the nation.
What differentiates the study of public health from, say, medicine?
It’s a population-based approach. The point is to understand how you positively change health outcomes not one individual at a time, but in whole populations. That’s really the foundation. A doctor that treats someone in a clinic can cure them of a disease and that’s an amazing thing to do. But there are many challenges that only a public health-based approach can meet. You think about something like the obesity epidemic in this country, that is impacted by multiple factors — genetic, environmental, social and cultural. Many of our big health problems are so complex that there are no simple models or solutions to meet them.
What inspired you to help bring more public health programs to UT?
I’ve had a passion for infectious diseases and public health since I started my career as a microbiologist at the CDC; that was 38 years ago. But my particular inspiration for launching the initiatives here came when I participated in an International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases in Atlanta in 2002.
I attended an evening panel presented by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) that focused on microbial threats to health. One of the largest threats they identified was the lack of a trained public health workforce. In fact, it’s now estimated that 250,000 individuals will be needed by 2020 to fill vacant positions as public health professionals in the baby boomer generation retire from the field.
That evening, I made up my mind to come back and make a difference on this campus.
So where did you start?
The first thing I did, in partnership with Dr. Diane Kneeland in Career Services, was to organize our first “Become A Disease Detective: Discover Public Health!” conference in 2003. It was designed to introduce students, faculty and advisers at the university to the field of public health, and to inspire students to consider public health careers.
We wanted to let students know that public health is a diverse field and that there are many different kinds of career paths within it. You can become an epidemiologist, a behavioral scientist, a biostatistician or specialize in health policy. You can work in a public health laboratory, supporting outbreak investigations, diagnosing emerging pathogens or understanding epidemics on the molecular level.