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Public health as public good

The founders of UND’s Master of Public Health program reflect on its 10-year anniversary

Assistant Professor of political science Laura Hand instructs Master of Public Health students at the School of Medicine & Health Sciences. Photo courtesy of the School of Medicine & Health Sciences.

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of North Dakota Medicine.

By Brian James Schill

“Our students are involved in everything that we do. Everything. And that’s been a priority for us since the beginning.”

For Cristina Oancea, Ph.D., an associate professor in the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences Master of Public Health (MPH) program, the insistence that students be involved in almost every aspect of public health work — from contact tracing to epidemiology to policymaking to marketing — is what makes it such a special place to be.

“The placements that our students get, oftentimes even before graduation, are incredible and the result of what those organizations see our students doing here. They get offers immediately,” she says with a smile. “A lot of times we’ll hire students as graduate assistants, and then, before you know it, someone like the North Dakota Department of Health wants them. That story has happened so many times.”

Just ask Katarina Domitrovich.

“I started out as a contact tracer for UND’s team with the state in the first days of COVID-19,” says the Health Equity Coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Health. “The connections I made in that role, the UND MPH program, and my experience working for UND in a public health position allowed me to step into my current role with confidence and with tools in my toolkit to succeed and serve North Dakotans well.”

The MPH program at UND celebrates its 10th anniversary this academic year. In those 10 years, the program has graduated more than 100 health professionals, almost all who have gone on to get doctoral degrees, publish in major journals, manage COVID-19 outbreaks at the state level and address things like substance use disorders, tuberculosis, sexually transmitted infections and suicide in their local communities — among many other public health priorities.

Cristina Oancea

In the beginning

“Over the years, we’ve seen tremendous student growth,” adds Ashley Bayne, MPH program manager. “For several years we’ve had a 100% employment rate for our alumni, which is fantastic. The need for public health in general has grown over the years and I think especially now [post-COVID], people know that.”

But it wasn’t always so. While not necessarily under attack, public health as a profession was in a very different place ten years ago. Much of the developed world at least felt that most communicable diseases had been contained and that communities understood the value of things like sanitation, sober driving, and seat-belt use. Likewise, tobacco use was on the decline.

Then came the opioid epidemic, the Flint, Mich., water crisis, renewed debates over gun violence in the United States, and increases in suicide among many age cohorts—all of which contributed to a decline in life expectancy in America by 2019.

Topping it all off was, of course, COVID-19, which as of this writing has claimed more than one million lives in the U.S. alone.

All of this, says Oancea, has contributed to the immense interest in public health programs not only at UND, but across the nation in recent years. As such, what began in 2012 as a small program — fewer than 10 enrolled students — has grown to one with more than 80 current students.

Having arrived at UND in 2013, Oancea, an epidemiologist by training, admits to taking pride in helping shape the 10-year-old program almost since its inception.

“I loved the fact that I was going to be among the pioneers, developing the program,” continues the researcher, who saw the opportunity to build also the North Dakota Cancer Registry with UND’s Dr. Mary Ann Sens too good to miss.

So she drove up from Memphis, Tenn., where she had been doing postdoctoral work in cancer epidemiology at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and got to work helping the program implement what it had chosen as specific tracks in population health research and analytics and health management and policy.

“And I can proudly say that we have an amazing MPH program with the group that we have, and we’ve managed to grow over time,” Oancea says.

Such growth and professional foci were goals of the program’s founding director Dr. Ray Goldsteen, who along with his wife, Dr. Karen Goldsteen, guided the program from 2012 to 2018 and achieved its first accreditation by the Council on Accreditation for Public Health (CEPH) in 2016.

“Number one, we felt that in all areas — urban or rural — people needed strong skills in analytics,” says Ray, who spoke with North Dakota Medicine via phone from his home in California. “So, we emphasized analytics and made that one of the major features of the curriculum, and began working with students, helping them achieve their goals.”

Team Goldsteen started immediately building partnerships with community agencies where students might end up.

“One of the most exciting things for me was the connection we had with the community,” continues Ray, citing relationships he cultivated with local policymakers and health providers. “We had wonderful connections with Altru Health System, the Grand Forks Health Department, and other health and service community organizations in Grand Forks and the state.”

Ray Goldsteen, founding director of the Master of Public Health program at UND, is pictured here with his wife, Karen Goldsteen. Together, they guided the program from 2012 to
2018 and achieved its first accreditation by the Council on
Accreditation for Public Health (CEPH) in 2016. Photo courtesy of Ray and Karen Goldsteen.

Academic partnerships

So here the program is, one decade in, with dozens of enrolled students of all levels in its multiple tracks.

Part of what has made the program at UND so successful, say both Goldsteens, are the academic partnerships it developed across UND and the state. These partnerships include joint degree offerings—an accelerated B.S./M.P.H., an M.D./M.P.H., and a J.D./M.P.H. — across UND.

“We felt that public health was inherently an integrative profession — it’s not standalone,” explains Karen. “It has relied on the skills of many different disciplines.”

One such integration was partnering with UND’s Nistler College of Business and Public Administration.

“We actually had a joint hire in that area,” Ray continues. “A joint faculty in that area between the business school and our own school. All those things we wanted to flourish— partnerships with the business school, the law school, and within the medical school. We were looking for those opportunities to make it as creative as we could and keep us from becoming isolated.”

The next decade

And it worked.

On the heels of both COVID and a recent reaccreditation by CEPH, the MPH program is grappling with an increase in applications. In the throes of the pandemic, says Bayne, applications to the program were at one point up 80% from the previous year.

For the next 10 years, then, Oancea says that the program is focused on growing its recently-added third track in Indigenous health and exploring a possible new track in environmental health.

“Word of mouth has brought us to the point where we now have students from other departments at UND — doctoral students in corresponding departments — who decided also to join our MPH program because they heard about our success,” Oancea beams. “It’s quite humbling when students — and faculty — from other departments come to our program to learn. That is very encouraging.”

All of this, she says, speaks volumes of the program UND has built in 10 short years.

“I keep telling our alumni that they are our ambassadors. If they are successful in their careers, that is a reflection not only on their hard work and our work as professors, mentors, and advisers; it’s a reflection on the support they received from their families and the schools they came from.”

Domitrovich agrees, noting that the program’s faculty and staff, and Bayne in particular, hardly get the credit they deserve for building an exceptional program.

“[Bayne] and the rest of the faculty ensure that the students feel supported throughout their time in the program, in a way I have never experienced academically,” Domitrovich says. “I truly believe that UND’s MPH program helped me fulfill my vocation, or calling really, in life to work in public health.”

About the author

Brian James Schill

Brian James Schill is director of the Office of Alumni and Community Relations at the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences.