Faculty Spotlight: Roy F. Oman

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As a social and behavioral scientist, Dr. Roy F. Oman, Professor in the School of Public Health (on-campus) at the University of Nevada, Reno, found his research continually intersecting with public health issues. He learned firsthand the impact of collaboration, which is now a critical part of solving public health problems and changing the face of public health education. Oman discusses both 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?

In my early career, I was much more of a researcher. I took an indirect route to get into public health. I graduated with my undergraduate degree in psychology and was accepted into a master’s program in sport and exercise psychology. I ran into a wise mentor/advisor there. He said I should focus on exercise psychology because that is a health issue that applies to everyone and there are more careers in this field. It was a very strong master’s program in terms of research. Then I learned a very broad approach to studying public health problems in my Ph.D. program.

Then I met Ken McLeroy, who introduced the ecological model to public health in 1988. He recruited me as a professor, so I went back into learning a very broad public health perspective, including the ecological model. That’s an approach that suggests we should look at public health issues beyond the individual or family level and consider the work environment, community, policy issues, etc. I have been fortunate running into influential people who steered me in the right direction.

How does a background in social and behavioral science help you offer perspective on today’s public health challenges?

Social and behavioral sciences have been around for decades, and we’ve studied knowledge, attitudes, beliefs and particular psychological constructs. I strongly believe that we need to wed policy more strongly to social and behavioral sciences and evaluate its impact on behavior.

We’ve been studying things at the personal level, such as psychological traits and social support, but we need to consider more strongly how policy influences behavior. It can be very effective, but it’s also coercive and paternalistic. The approach can both create health inequities and help health in positive ways. It’s a developing field that we need to consider more.

You recently completed a project exploring the use of intervention strategies to strengthen youth, family and community assets among Choctaw families. Can you talk about the project?

This project took a strength-based approach where you look at positive youth assets , instead of focusing on negative behaviors. This differs from traditional messages such as, “Don’t smoke,” “Eat healthy” or “Be active.” Instead it’s looking at positive attributes that youth might have that are related to positive health behaviors and outcomes.

It goes with the concept to look beyond the individual. There are individual, family and community assets, things that youth might have access to that influence health positively, that encourage avoidance of risk behaviors and make them more likely to participate in positive behaviors as well as to successfully transition into early adulthood.

I became involved because a community in Oklahoma was interested in using this approach to address high rates of teen pregnancy. I’ve been involved in this kind of asset-based research and practice for 15 years.

How is public health changing? What are the trends you see that will shape the field?

There are two big changes in public health and education. First, the silos are coming down. We have these traditional fields of epidemiology, environmental health, biostatistics, social behavioral health and health administration and policy, and we are moving to make those fields much more integrated.

For example, there are new MPH competencies that all schools will have to adopt within the next two years. The competencies traditionally were within each field, so epidemiology had its foundational competencies and social behavioral health had its foundational competencies, and so on. Now, many of the competencies are not defined by those traditional fields. Instead they’re under topics such as communication and systems thinking and leadership. It’s much more integrative.

The second is that we need to look more in-depth at policy, because policies can be effective in changing public health norms and practices. It’s interesting how policy can help population health, but it also might contribute to health inequities.

What are the greatest public health challenges facing today’s online MPH graduates?

MPH graduates are going to have to learn to work not only within the traditional fields of public health, but also cross over to other public health related professions, such as nursing and social work. They are going to have to understand those fields and how they can implement their skills and strategies. There’s much more of a team basis which, again, we’ve been doing it that way for years, but now it’s really starting to show up in the curriculum and training, too.

What is the value of an MPH in today’s public health marketplace?

It’s clear that you come out with skills that are measurable and that everyone understands. For example, in social behavioral health sciences, you learn to assess, the needs and strengths of communities, recommend interventions and programs, and then to evaluate the interventions and programs. Those will to remain, but in these new competencies, there is more emphasis on leadership and communication and cross-cutting skills and knowledge. So the MPH is a very valuable degree, and I assume it will continue to be.

What makes the University of Nevada, Reno online MPH program stand out?

One reason it stands out is that its lower cost compared to other programs. Another is that we have high-quality instructors teaching in the online program who also teach in our in-person MPH master’s and Ph.D. programs. So our program boasts excellent, experienced instructors and a good cost/benefit advantage.

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 Public Health 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.