Doctoral Students Stress Need for Hands-On and Interdisciplinary Public Health Training

December 21, 2020

Six doctoral students at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health argue that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that public health schools must do more to impart students with practical skills so they can be effective practitioners. The op-ed appears in the American Journal of Public Health.

Joanne Michelle F. Ocampo, Jessica A. Lavery, Yongmei Huang, Damemarie Paul, Alejandra Paniagua-Avila, and Nahid Punjani are each pursuing of public health (DrPH) degrees in the departments of Biostatistics, Epidemiology, and Population and Family Health. Since the spring, several of them have been involved in responding to the pandemic, even as they continued classes as the Columbia Mailman School quickly adapted to online learning, and balanced personal and family lives.

“COVID-19’s abrupt and devastating impact on our lives shed light on the essential characteristics of a successful public health practitioner: the ability to adapt to sudden changes, the skills to manage uncertainty, and the resilience to meet high demands,” the authors write.

To help public health be more effective in addressing fast-moving challenges like COVID-19, the authors write that students should have opportunities to learn from practitioners in different fields early on in their careers about how to tackle interdisciplinary problems. They also need to understand how to communicate with multiple stakeholders, including policymakers, the public, the media, and the business community. Public health students also need to learn to be “versatile and adaptable” so as to “go beyond learning lessons to adequately acting on them.” This training would supplement rigorous training in discipline-specific methodology, of the kind already taught in public health schools.

The authors stress the importance of collaborating and communicating with the populations they intend to serve, including an emphasis on “more empathic and effective” outreach. “We need our academic training to include teaching us to better understand, assist, and, most importantly, collaborate with those we are trying to serve,” they write.

The authors offer special thanks to Helen de Pinho, assistant professor of population and family health, “for leading by example, motivating and inspiring us, and showing us how reflective teaching, interdisciplinary collaboration and communication, and individual learning and action are interlinked with our public health practice.”

The authors conclude: “We are inspired to take this as an opportunity to grow as individuals and to improve public health as our field of study. Our ability to adapt to sudden changes, skills to manage uncertainty, and resilience to meet high demands are intimately linked to our training.”

They say they’ve received nothing but positive feedback from colleagues and peers. Columbia Mailman School leadership, including Dean Linda P. Fried, also offered their praise.