ImpactSpring 2015

For the greater good

New Master of Public Health program brings world-class educators to UIndy

MHS-photoIn 2014, the Ebola virus was front page news. And 2015 had barely begun when a measles outbreak in California spread to more than a dozen states—along with a renewed national debate about immunization.

Closer to home, the U.S. surgeon general took a national tour, visiting Indianapolis in February to learn about Hoosier health challenges. Like their counterparts across the country, Indiana officials grapple with influenza, cardiovascular disease, substance abuse, infant mortality, mental health, obesity, diabetes, and smoking. Given these and other public health threats in our own backyards and around the world, the new Master of Public Health program at the University of Indianapolis is timely. It is also unique.

“UIndy’s MPH is one of very few in the U.S. that prepares students to identify health disparities in specific populations,” says Shannon McMorrow, assistant professor and interim program director. Understanding differences in wellness among groups of children and adults based on gender, ethnicity, income level, educational background, age, and other factors is key.

“Once disparities are identified, holistic approaches to addressing them can be developed,” McMorrow explains.

Cultural competency and global health

A community health educator for more than a decade, McMorrow has worked across the U.S., in Belize, and Uganda. She studies global sexual and reproductive health, focusing on HIV and AIDS prevention and education in East Africa, including the effect of media coverage on health practice in Kenya. McMorrow also explores the effect of multiculturalism on public health practice. She and two MPH students presented a paper on cultural competency coursework at a March national conference in New York at Columbia University.

“Understanding the cultural implications of public health is critical for MPH students. It’s an expectation in today’s job market that practitioners understand cultural differences and employ systemic approaches to address the needs of diverse populations,” she notes.

From India to UIndy

Assistant Professor Debasree DasGupta studies geographic patterning of global health outcomes, including fertility, organ allocation and transplants, and drug regimens. Using geographic information systems to analyze large statistical and econometric data sets is her specialty.

“GIS technology enables us to begin closing research gaps in the effort to alleviate health inequities,” she says. “Presenting data in simple, intuitive terms allows us to identify and interpret health manifestations in and across geographic regions. It enables us to study socioeconomic characteristics as well as the origin of disease and impacts of health-related behavior.”

DasGupta is a principal investigator in a project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to investigate effective tuberculosis treatments among the urban poor in India. She is actively seeking research funding to provide UIndy students with hands-on research opportunities.

“Events like the Ebola pandemic are not new. Disease has spread across continents through human migration since prehistoric times. But knowing how to prepare ourselves against diseases that can rapidly spread across geographic boundaries is paramount in the modern world,” DasGupta adds.

Preparing for the worst

A surveillance epidemiologist for 13 years, Assistant Professor Amie Wojtyna has worked for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and the Indiana State Department of Health studying outbreaks of disease at the local, state, and national levels. With a background in biology, biochemistry, and molecular biology, examining enteric diseases (those relating to the intestines) and antimicrobial resistance in humans is her specialty. Wojtyna has analyzed botulism, E. coli infections, salmonellosis outbreaks, and food-borne illness of all kinds.

“I specialize in investigating the links between antibiotics in food-producing animals and subsequent resistance in human gut flora,” she explains. During her tenure at the CDC, Wojtyna was part of the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System team, a multi-agency operation that included the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and state and local health departments. Wojtyna’s expertise gives UIndy students valuable insight into outbreak investigations, emergency planning and preparedness, and health education in an era of deep cuts to public health funding and staffing by many state and federal agencies.

Advocating and educating

Heidi Rauch, an associate professor who coordinates UIndy’s community health education program, studies health education, program evaluation, and advocacy.

“To eliminate a disparity means the environment must change,” she says. “I explore both applied and theoretical techniques to help individuals and communities change behavior. As an advocate, I look for ways to serve those who are underserved or disadvantaged.”

Public health in Marion County and across Indiana varies dramatically by location, educational attainment, socioeconomic status, and access to services.

“Indianapolis has wonderful hospitals and top medical specialists, but neighborhood clinics to serve low-income women, infants, the elderly, and other citizens are needed. Access to healthy, fresh food, city parks, and recreational facilities is essential. Encouraging employers to create healthy workplaces where physical activity, stress management, and tobacco cessation are promoted is also important,” Rauch notes.

Each of these women say UIndy is preparing graduates who will be able to think critically about societal structure and policies that affect health disparities, and take action to tackle the challenges. The full-time, 45-credit MPH degree is designed for working adults to complete in two years. Courses are delivered almost exclusively online, although a mandatory one-week summer intensive and two weekend sessions on campus along with a practicum are required. McMorrow expects many MPH students to hold professional positions in social work, health-care administration, education, nursing, and related human services while completing the program.When UIndy’s $28-million new health science pavilion opens this fall, MPH students will have an effect on local health right away.

“Students will be engaged in public health programming and community development plans to help improve quality of life for residents living in neighborhoods near the University,” McMorrow says.

—Susan Sullivan

the authorMarty