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At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), I was fortunate to count Gillings School scientists as colleagues and friends, and I followed the ground-breaking and life-saving research coming out of the school. Now, as dean, I look forward to focusing with the Gillings community on important initiatives already underway to enhance our work in public health practice, global health and inclusive excellence, among many other topics.
[Get to know Nancy Messonnier. Read interview.]
My 25 years at the CDC gave me a catchphrase to which I often return: Vaccines on a shelf are 0% effective.
This is one area where the Gillings School, the No. 1 public school of public health and second overall, is making a difference. Whether it be through vaccines, policy, research or education, we must continue to take a leadership role in a way that involves all our departments and draws on all our strengths to put life-saving tools into effect.
As we move forward, I want to set the school up for success through a consistent focus on follow-through and forward-looking action. Scientific discovery is incredibly important. Equally, the lessons our faculty teach must always come back to practical application, because what is true for vaccines is true for all public health interventions: They can only be effective if they can be implemented well.
One of my top goals for Gillings is that everything we do culminates in a positive, tangible difference in the world.
We must use these action-oriented approaches to dismantle structures of systemic racism that result in disproportionate suffering among communities of color. We can’t just examine the outcomes of injustice; we must detail the drivers and use that evidence to push for policy change, even when it seems to lie beyond the borders of public health. Housing and transportation, for example, may seem outside our scope, but they are pivotal determinants of well-being and access to health care.
Today’s students must learn how to dialogue across difference and find common values. I want to encourage a culture of reality around what practicing public health is like outside the University. The more clearly students can visualize the twisty path from idea to outcome — and the more landmarks we offer them for course correcting along the way — the better prepared they will be to arrive at a place of meaningful impact.
Here’s to forging a path to better health for all — together.
Nancy Messonnier, MD
Dean, Gillings School of Global Public Health
Some of our funded project include:
- Statistical methods for integrative analysis of large-scale neuroimaging data — Quefeng Li, PhD/Biostatistics (2021-2026)
- Rapidly Emerging Antiviral Drug Development Initiative-AViDD Center (READDI-AC) — Ralph Baric, PhD/Epidemiology (2022-2025)
- Examining state SNAP policies as a primary prevention strategy for early life exposure to violence and other adverse childhood experiences — Anna Austin, PhD/Maternal and Child Health (2021-2024)
- Rapid, multi-payer transition to value-based payment: The case of North Carolina — Valerie Lewis, PhD/Health Policy and Management (2022-2025)
- Nutrition for precision health: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Clinical Center — Elizabeth Mayer-Davis, PhD/Nutrition (2021-2026)
- Carolina Center for Total Worker Health and Well-Being — Laura Linnan, ScD/Health Behavior (2021-2026)
Examples of health equity projects:
- Measuring the impact of structural racism and discrimination during adolescence on substance use, psychological distress and criminal justice outcomes in adulthood
— Nisha Gottfredson, PhD/Health Behavior (2022-2026)
- Black community’s vision for and accountability of a local reparations process — Tamarie Macon, PhD/Public Health Leadership Program (2021-2023)
- Racialization and cardiovascular risk factors among Latinos: An intersectional approach — Deshira Wallace, PhD/Health Behavior (2022-2027)
- Environmental Justice Applied Research Clinic (EJ ARC): Developing community-driven solutions to environmental racism — Courtney Woods, PhD/Environmental Sciences and Engineering (2021-2022)
Enrollment has grown substantially, especially within the residential and online Master of Public Health (MPH) programs.
- Students from underrepresented communities now comprise 24.1% of all students in the school, up from 23.5% last year.
- Nearly 35.7% of MPH@UNC students are from underrepresented communities, up from 32% last year.
- Our Assured Enrollment program has helped increase enrollment in Bachelor of Science in Public Health (BSPH) degree majors.
Faculty who teach in the Gillings MPH Core assess their syllabi annually to strengthen equity frameworks, content, class discussions and skills development. Other Gillings programs are also strengthening equity content and skills development. The academic affairs and inclusive excellence teams are collaborating on strategic planning to expand these efforts.
- We instituted a new online applied epidemiology concentration and are welcoming our first students this fall.
- Established joint MPH degree program between UNC Asheville and UNC Gillings on the campus of the Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC), with a concentration in place-based health.
Future goals include:
- Launching a new Bachelor of Science in Public Health major in global and community health,
- Establishing a peer faculty mentoring program or teaching fellow academy,
- Securing more financial resources for students,
- Establishing student recruitment partnerships with local institutions that serve underrepresented communities,
- Pursuing more online options to improve flexibility for students, and
- Continuous quality improvement to strengthen public health training at the school.
We continue to grow our areas of global strength in nutrition; infectious disease epidemiology; water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH); health behavior; and sexual and reproductive health.
We maintained our global work in the face of COVID-19, with our work spanning 45+ countries focusing on a wide range of health problems, settings and approaches. More than 80 of the 240 faculty members at Gillings focus on global health, working across our eight departments. In FY 21-22, our funding for research that included global components was $118 million, making up about 42% of total funding to the Gillings School.
In keeping with UNC’s commitment to the Global Guarantee to make a transformative global education available to all students, we offer over 40 courses with global content, and the MPH Core integrates global and local content. We had over 200 international students from 46 countries. 77 students received over $130k in travel awards for practicum, conferences and research.
We continue to maintain strong partnerships to offer student research and practice opportunities with FHI 360, IntraHealth International, RTI International, UNC-Wits partnership, CDC Dengue Branch, CDC Foundation, Male Contraceptive Initiative, and UNC Gillings Zambia Hub with UNC Global Women’s Health.
With the support of the Gillings Global Health Advisory Committee, we finalized an eight-year strategic plan for global health at Gillings. This plan, which was endorsed by the Dean’s Council, outlines goals for global programming in research, training and practice that will be led by our Gillings Global Health office.
Since February 2022, Robert Smith III, PhD, has served as the vice dean of the Gillings School. In this role, his two key goals are, in his words, “to eliminate redundancies and reduce inefficiencies.” Prior to joining the Gillings School, Smith spent 10 years at the UNC School of Medicine, most recently as associate chair for administration in the department of neurology. A graduate of the University of Virginia, Smith’s commitment to public health goes back to his childhood where, as a young man, he earned the nickname “Doc.”
Smith provides operational leadership to the Gillings School during a time of transition — when the pandemic has changed many of our assumptions about work and the role of public health in society. Old habits of work and learning are being examined, and he brings his experience with “The Future of Work” from his time at the School of Medicine.
Smith is a seasoned leader, lecturer, manager, administrator and training consultant, with more than 20 years of experience.
Outside of work, Smith is an avid cyclist, dating back to his time as a member of the Piedmont Flyers cycling team.
In September 2022, Professor of Practice John Wiesman, DrPH, MPH, was named the Gillings School’s associate dean for practice. In this role, he will provide guidance to achieve the school’s vision and goals for practice.
Last year, the school began development of a 2028 Strategic Plan and started creating one for public health practice in October 2021. A task force, co-chaired by Wiesman and Professor of Practice Leah Devlin, DDS, MPH, was charged to “define, organize and operationalize practice to achieve a 21st century vision of practice at Gillings.” The Dean’s Council formally approved the plan at the end of July.
The practice vision for 2028 calls for Gillings to elevate and support practice so we can help communities meet public health opportunities and challenges and help our students gain on-the-ground experience. In doing this work, we are committing to being community centered, equity driven and local-to-global.
Four exciting initiatives for implementation:
- Identifying a small number of geographic areas with critical equity challenges and low resources in which we will create and sustain 5-10 year public health partnerships.
- Developing a public health collaborative to help communities address challenging public health practice issues.
- Partnering with other university public health programs in North Carolina, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and DHHS to create a system of academic partnerships with health departments and other health organizations across the state to improve the workforce.
- Assessing the Gillings School’s emergency preparedness and response work to prepare for the next public health crisis.
Recent actions across six priority areas include:
- A venue for student feedback and inclusive excellence training programs, which have had 95% participation from faculty and staff and 45% participation from students,
- New requirements for courses and a review process that acknowledges faculty members for facilitating discussions around equity issues in the classroom,
- Improved approaches to communicating inclusive excellence, equity and anti-racism through our website, promotional materials, artwork and course syllabi,
- Equitable funding for research assistantships, teaching assistantships and scholarships, which have positively impacted students across demographics,
- Training for admissions committee members, removal of the GRE requirement for graduate programs, earlier communication of funding packages and the creation of a more welcoming culture at Gillings, which have resulted in a large increase in diversity of our student body, and
- Increased funding for research related to health equity and a faculty award to acknowledge outstanding contributions to equity within a pressing public health issue.
Kim Ramsey-White, PhD, joined the Gillings School as associate dean for inclusive excellence in 2022. Her deep experience implementing diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, and a research portfolio focused on education reform initiatives, health disparities and social capital, ensure our school is in good hands and progress will continue on this core piece of our mission.
What sparked your interest in public health?
After taking a year after college to work in a laboratory, in some ways I was on a traditional path to being a clinical doctor. During medical school, I spent a summer at the Frontier Nursing Service, which is the first school of midwifery in the United States and a prime example of public health in clinical care. I then started my residency in internal medicine. While I concentrated on primary care at the Veterans Administration during my third year, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do in the future.
Then I heard about the Epidemic Intelligence Service Fellowship at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It sounded fun and adventurous; I thought I’d only be there for two years before going back to my clinical career. My first outbreak brought me, a city girl from Philadelphia, to a town in rural Texas where I did a study that led to modifications in a vaccine strategy for the community. Instead of treating patients one-by-one, I could have an impact on an entire population. I liked the practice, but I also liked the science — learning epidemiology tools and applying them to a problem. The CDC was a community full of like-minded people, and within six months, I knew I wasn’t ever going to go back to be an academic clinician.
Experiences there helped me realize the amazing potential of a vaccine. Unlike some interventions, giving the right vaccine at the right time to the right population can dramatically impact a disease right away. If you have the correct implementation strategy, you can use science to make a dramatic impact on our population so quickly.
What is your advice for future public health leaders?
Say yes to things.
Take advantage of every opportunity to learn something new, even if you can’t see where the end point might take you. At CDC, I had the great pleasure of working across a variety of things in addition to vaccines. I didn’t necessarily know where some of the projects were headed, but I got to do great work with great people, and I learned something from everything. At the time, I viewed it as just working on another project, but in retrospect, I’ve come to realize that broad exposure to different experiences can really impact your trajectory.
I remember my very first step into a leadership position. I wasn’t going to apply to it because I was really happy doing research on the front lines, but one of my mentors convinced me that the leadership development would be beneficial. I’m thankful for that encouragement, and I’m glad I said yes. My time at the Skoll Foundation, my time at UNC — sometimes we have to be willing to take the next step.
Don’t be afraid to say yes. Don’t be afraid to fail at something.
Who are you when you’re at home?
I’m a mom. I’m a wife. I’m a friend. I have three cats and a dog — I don’t exactly know how that happened.
I think I’m a quieter person at home. Especially after the pandemic, I’ve come to appreciate being in community with the people I care about, learning new things and meeting new people.
I like to cook. I like to travel. I like to be outside. I love playing fetch with my dog, Scout, who reliably brings the ball back to me every time. It’s reinvigorating to be in nature and be astonished by things. Even the smallest things. It’s fall right now, and the leaves are beautiful. I never want to lose my appreciation of those things.
Dr. Ciara Zachary’s work focuses on health policy research and advocacy to increase access to affordable, high-quality health coverage, especially for underserved populations.
Prior to joining the Gillings School, she led several policy advocacy initiatives and lobbied state and federal lawmakers to improve health care programs. She frequently worked with grassroots and grasstops partners across North Carolina on policy issues, including Medicaid transformation and expansion and the Affordable Care Act.
In addition to her advocacy work, Dr. Zachary has extensive experience in state and federal health policy analysis, as well as in program evaluation for diverse communities. Through her experiences working with diverse stakeholders, Dr. Zachary is passionate about understanding how health policy impacts health equity and health disparities.
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