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Q&A: Ensuring Impact


“We need to effectively communicate the problems and conditions, but also the solutions to public health professionals, community based organizations, community members and policymakers.”

- Dr. Michael Prelip

THROUGH HIS RESEARCH IN COMMUNITIES and his 15 years overseeing the placement of FSPH students with partners in public health settings, Dr. Michael Prelip’s focus during his more than two decades on the Fielding School faculty has been on making an impact in areas of need. The professor and chair of the school’s Department of Community Health Sciences (CHS) has led numerous National Institutes of Health-funded research and training programs aiming to reduce health disparities, particularly through improved nutrition and health promotion. He has also directed the field component of the CHS department’s MPH degree and the school’s MPH for Health Professionals Program. Prelip spoke with FSPH’s Public Health Magazine on ways the school maximizes its impact.

Q: What is the obligation of FSPH faculty members to go beyond the traditional role of academics when it comes to seeking impact outside the university?

A: I see it as more than an obligation; it’s who we are, what we want and why we’re here. More than many academic disciplines, we aren’t in this position only to create new knowledge, but also to make a difference. And to do that, we have to think about the implications of our research and how we train public health students.

Q: Much is already known about policies and programs that would make people healthier, yet in many cases there’s a gap between what’s known and what’s done.

A: Right, and this isn’t a unique issue for public health. So we need to effectively communicate the problems and conditions, but also the solutions to public health professionals, community-based organizations, community members and policymakers in order to help them better understand what we need to do to bridge the gap. It’s one thing to publish research in an academic journal, but there is then a responsibility to make sure the right people are getting that information and understanding how it can be applied.

Q: What are some of the ways of doing that?

A: The traditional way that investigators have done this would be the classic scientific manuscript in a peer-reviewed journal or presentation at a scientific meeting, which we do, and which continues to be important. But we can also create other usable communication pieces. For example, in our project aiming to change the food environment in East Los Angeles through home and corner store makeovers, we published about a dozen scientific manuscripts on the work, but we also created a toolkit — both in English and Spanish and digitally accessible — that communities, local governments and nonprofits could use if they were interested in doing similar work. Our school does things like creating policy briefs, providing testimony and meeting with public officials to communicate important research findings and recommendations. It’s also critical to establish relationships with public health practitioners, policymakers and community groups to make sure not only that people understand the evidence, but that they know what to do with it and how to implement potential solutions.

Q: You have also spoken about the value of community-based research that involves the impacted population from the beginning, as well as making sure that after the funding ends, the work is sustainable.

A: Absolutely. Historically, the dissemination piece comes at the end: We’ve collected our data, finished our analyses, and now we’re going to write a manuscript for a peer-reviewed publication. But it’s clear that there is much greater impact when you work with the community throughout the process. When stakeholders are involved all along, it helps to ensure that the final product will be disseminated in a way that makes sense. And more than that, it ensures that the research questions and approach are grounded in the real issues of the community.

Q: In addition to its community partnerships, the Fielding School has close ties with public health practice, particularly the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. Why is that so valuable?

A: It makes a difference in so many ways. One of our school’s greatest impacts is in training the public health workforce. We continue to see large numbers of our alumni working at the county public health department. We also have quite a bit of cross-fertilization with faculty here who are involved in collaborative research projects involving the county, as well as professionals at the county who are part of our faculty here. It’s a productive relationship that benefits the county as well as our school, by keeping our curriculum and research focused on everyday public health practice.

Q: FSPH has an incredibly diverse student body, many of whom are from communities that are deeply affected by health disparities, or from other countries where there is a great public health need. How does that make a difference?

A: Many of our students are passionate and committed to using their education at the Fielding School to make a difference in their community. That’s especially important in a state as diverse as California. We have to constantly work to improve the support we can to our students so that they have the resources not only to be here, but also to graduate without a debt burden that could prevent them from doing the great work they are passionate about.

Q: How does the school maximize the impact of its teaching?

A: We have come to appreciate that for all we can do on campus, our MPH students are here to be rained as public health professionals, and so it is critical that we create learning experiences that bridge the important classroom learning with the field. We want our students to be effective in applying their knowledge and skills in a real-world setting, so we place a great deal of emphasis on the fieldwork our students participate in both in our backyard and around the world, in a wide range of settings. Beyond the practicum requirement, we are constantly looking for new opportunities for students to gain real-world experience, whether it’s through volunteer work, independent studies, activities that are part of particular courses, or bringing in people from the community to interact with and mentor our students.