When public health professionals are succeeding, their work becomes invisible. That’s how Trudy Larson, the University of Nevada, Reno’s director of the School of Community Health Sciences has measured success in her expansive history that combines medicine, research, education and advocacy. Find out how her work advances public health and inspires students in our Master of Public Health program in the Q&A below.
What was your motivation for pursuing a career in medical and public health education? When did you know this was what you wanted to do?
When I was in my pediatric infectious disease fellowship program in 1981, I went to a grand rounds about gay men in Hollywood who were getting a very unusual pneumonia. That was my introduction to AIDS, although it didn’t even have that name yet. My mentor was doing herpes research and I joined her in enrolling some of these very ill men into her study.
In enrolling patients I started interviewing them as they were identified in the hospital. This was a new disease. This was different. As a person who’s curious, I thought, “This is very interesting.” I kept up on everything I could, so that’s how I got into HIV/AIDS care, research and education.
When you have that kind of experience with research and education, you start looking for academic positions. That’s when I came to Reno to join the University of Nevada. In 1983-1984, they still had the gay rodeo in Reno. AIDS was associated with gay men, so a very conservative group wanted to block the rodeo in Reno. The ACLU asked me if I would debate.
I showed up for the debate and there were television cameras everywhere. There were probably 300-400 people on campus for this. I was astonished, but it was an opportunity to educate the community. That really launched me publicly in the field and I’ve been involved ever since. I’ve spent over 30 years in the HIV/AIDS arena, doing education, research and patient services.
How does a background in both medicine and public health help you offer perspective on today’s public health challenges?
I can talk about patient stories that are personal to me. It helps put a human face on diseases and infections and helps people understand that if you’re doing a really good job with public health, the field becomes invisible. If public health is doing its job — helping to get everybody immunized, effectively managing communicable diseases in the community — you will never have a headline about that disease, because they’re doing their jobs.
I get to sit in both worlds. When I talk to medical students, they listen to me, because I have my M.D. I did a lecture not too long ago about public health and medicine and why people should care. We talked about social determinants of health, and the research shows that your ZIP code is more important than your genetic code in terms of health outcomes. They found that fascinating, so we spent the discussion talking about how that works — and I could tell them how I saw that work in my own patients.
How is public health changing? What are the trends you see that will shape the field in the coming years?
I think the public health field is going to become more corporate. Corporations are recognizing that public health really equals population health. They want to implement programs that improve wellness. Who does that best? People trained in public health can say, “These are evidence-based recommendations that result in effective improvement of people’s health.”
Public health will always need to fill the traditional roles in health departments and state health divisions. It’s critical that public health-trained graduates are there, but I believe that other entities are recognizing the talents of public health-trained people. We have folks who are working in corporations running wellness programs, then evaluating them, because public health is about data, evaluation and really testing if these programs work. Those skills would be beneficial for a variety of fields outside traditional public health.
What are the greatest public health challenges facing today’s MPH graduates?
I think public health still suffers from a major lack of public awareness. It’s not like being an engineer where folks automatically figure out what you do. It’s very broad, and there are so many different careers, so education of the public is a continuing challenge.
Also, there’s going to be a lot of turnover over the next 10 years. The baby boomers are going to retire, and I think the challenge will be lack of mentors for those public health professionals who will replace them. People will be very eager to hire MPH grads, but mentorship is really important in establishing a good career.
A Master of Public Health is such a practical degree. Graduates come out with concrete skills in a variety of areas, and the faculty shows them how they can apply their skills. Part of what they do in the capstone course is to map out their future careers. One challenge may be the diversity of jobs that will be open to graduates and how to choose among them.
What is the value of an MPH in today’s public health marketplace?
Many public health organizations are suffering because they don’t have employees with advanced degrees. Graduates will have management skills, and people are looking for managers in health departments because so many employees right now, according to workforce development surveys, do not have advanced degrees. So an MPH really makes them stand out.
Also when you graduate with your MPH, you can essentially implement and evaluate any program. That’s valuable in a lot of fields, including traditional public health. The MPH gets them practical skills that they can apply immediately.
What makes the University of Nevada, Reno online MPH program stand out?
This MPH program has always been student-focused to make sure that students achieve learning outcomes. Another aspect is that when we created the MPH program, we did it based on evidence. We conducted a large workforce survey in Nevada and were able to identify what public health professionals felt were the most important skills that they need. We used that to guide our curriculum development. We believe this is a hugely practical curriculum that will provide graduates with skills that they can immediately apply to real-world problems.
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.