Smarter public health solutions demand more collaboration. That means bringing in voices from outside the traditional realm of public health. It’s what introduced assistant professor Jeff Angermann to the field — and it’s what ultimately led him to join the University of Nevada, Reno’s online Master of Public Health program.
Dr. Angermann has a Ph.D. in environmental chemistry and toxicology, and it’s this outsider expertise that helped further his impact in public health. Learn more about how he helps online MPH students gain unique perspectives in the Q&A below.
What was your motivation for pursuing a career in public health education? When did you know this was what you wanted to do?
My trajectory toward a career in public health was not very traditional. I don’t think public health was on my radar when I was a graduate student at UC-Davis and a postdoc in the Pharmacology department at University of Nevada, Reno.
Then in my last year as a postdoc, I got a grant to do public health-related work. That came about in part because my wife is a family practice physician and her partner has always been interested in research. We decided to collaborate on a state grant proposal to study exercise prescription for weight loss. We got that funded and that led me to a faculty position in Community Health Sciences here. That’s how I got into public health.
I’m trained as a research toxicologist and chemist, so I’ve always enjoyed doing mechanistic work in the laboratory. At the same time, when you do environmental toxicology research, you’re very concerned with the effects of pollutants on biological systems. There’s a subset of public health devoted to environmental health. So my background is actually very well-suited to some of the interests that environmental health scientists in schools of public health have.
How does a background in environmental toxicology allow you to offer perspective on today’s public health challenges?
Many students come to public health with an interest in immunization, infectious disease, epidemiology and other areas of study that people naturally associate with schools of public health. I think it’s also important to tell them that there’s more to it than that. The applied basic sciences have a role in public health, and toxicology and environmental health critically contribute to rounding out expertise.
Having a background in this area allows me to offer perspective in a couple different ways. One way is to appeal to a subset of public health students who have a yearning to do more mechanistic work, which involves the basic sciences. I feel that it’s important to explain to students the ways in which mechanistic work in environmental toxicology contributes to knowledge of public health problems, because many of them have never had the opportunity to learn about this field of study.
Another way is to encourage receptive students to expand and combine their research interests, which enables them to participate in translational research projects. When faculty from different backgrounds are interested in tackling the same problems but bring different skill sets to the investigation of those problems, then you envision ways in which you can work together. I think that’s a really tremendous way to offer perspective in a collaborative sense.
This is increasingly the way science works in practice. I think environmental toxicologists are more collaborative now, both because many significant health issues have emerged at the interface of disciplines such as epidemiology and exposure science, and because the scientific establishment has emphasized the need for collaborative approaches to both existing and emergent public health problems, as evidenced by the increasing number of federal funding opportunities which explicitly prioritize interdisciplinary ‘team’ approaches.
Talk about some of the major advances or findings you’ve seen in the field of environmental toxicology in recent years, and how they can impact population health.
There’s been a pronounced shift toward so-called big data approaches and genomics research over the past decade. I think that as the cost of whole genome sequencing has plummeted, and the diversity of molecular tools and approaches have expanded, there’s been increased interest in establishing screening tools and assessment tools for characterization of genetic determinants of disease. As a result, we’ve seen an increasing number of molecular toxicologists working on public health-related problems, such as identification of alleles that may predispose individuals to the toxic effects of certain pollutants. These types of projects can illuminate the ways in which toxic exposures can selectively affect individuals within populations, and in certain cases may even indicate opportunities for susceptibility screening and subsequent intervention.
How is public health changing? What are the trends you see that will shape the field in the coming years?
I think one of the biggest changes is illustrated by a recent shift in the Council on Education for Public Health and their requirements for accreditation. There’s been a move now to become more flexible on the requirement that you need a certain number of faculty in each of the five traditional concentrations of public health. They’re recognizing that this may not be the best way to build a competitive and successful school of public health. At the same time there’s a big emphasis on collaboration. So it’s almost like there’s an emphasis on the ability to do varied specific work, but at the same time to collaborate and see a bigger picture.
What are the greatest public health challenges facing today’s MPH graduates?
I believe that there is an increasing demand for solid technical skills. They’re looking for folks coming out with skills that prepare them to implement out-of-the-box analyses. I think these applied skills and strong traditional technical skills are what employers are increasingly demanding in MPH graduates. That’s that first category of challenge, the ”’personal marketplace”’ challenge.
The other is a more holistic challenge: How can these graduates find employment in places of greatest need? We all know that the United States is pretty well-off in the big scheme of things. We have significant public health issues here, certainly. The magnitude of many domestic public health issues, however, can often pale in comparison to the health problems of developing countries, or to health-related issues that present at a global scale. So where can students go where they have arguably more significant need for their skills? What mechanisms exist to get them to those places and to employ them in those places? I think that that’s a big challenge — matching up skills with geographic demand.
What makes the University of Nevada, Reno online MPH program stand out?
I think we have a really high energy level. We’ve got a cadre of early career, energetic faculty members who are excited to develop content for the program, as well as innovative instructors who have implemented hybrid and flipped classroom-teaching approaches within the existing CHS curriculum.
What could you have learned from this MPH program that would have helped you during your career?
I would have liked to take the core epidemiology course series at the graduate level. That’s because I now collaborate with epidemiologists on a regular basis, and it would be beneficial for me to have a more fundamental and thorough understanding of epidemiology through classical training to better understand how to collaborate.
Do you have questions? Learn more about your role in the future of public health with the University of Nevada, Reno’s online Master of Public Health program today. The School of Community Health Sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno provides the educational and research experiences to transform students into the innovators, educators, practitioners and researchers that are needed to promote public health in our communities.