When Teresa Waters, PhD, stepped foot on the campus of Augusta University on August 1 to officially assume her role as the inaugural dean of AU’s proposed School of Public Health, she stepped into a massive undertaking, but also into what she sees as a major undertaking. possibility.
It is a major undertaking because it is tasked with consolidating the fundamental parts of the AU into a unified identity and purpose.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity, and it will take a bit of hard work. We’re bringing in great people from different departments who love public health, but now we have to come together and say, ‘We are the School of Public Health’ and really dive in to create a shared identity,” Waters said. “This is an opportunity and a challenge. There are some changes coming that everyone will like, but there will also be changes that not everyone appreciates. And that’s okay. We’ll talk about it and find out, but that shared identity of becoming a new school will really be worth it.
Augusta University was already home to the Institute of Public and Preventive Health (IPPH), the Center for Rural Health, and the Center for Bioethics & Health Policy. Then there were the educational pieces. IPPH offered a CEPH-accredited Master of Public Health degree and the College of Allied Health Sciences offered a PhD in Applied Health Sciences, while the Medical College of Georgia’s Department of Population Health Sciences traditionally houses multiple quantitative graduate programs.
The consolidation will bring seven programs under the umbrella of the School of Public Health, including the Master of Public Health, as well as Master of Science degree programs in biostatistics, clinical translational sciences, data science and epidemiology. The last two programs are Doctor of Philosophy programs in biostatistics and applied health sciences.
While it’s a lot to digest, Waters already knows she has the tools to make it happen, including faculty and staff who were already familiar with the many moving parts.
“Everyone who comes to the school can build on the great work that has already been done. By bringing us all together under one roof, we can improve each other’s work and continue to grow,” said Waters. “In terms of research and community engagement, we inherit a strong infrastructure through IPPH. In the new school, more teachers and staff can take advantage of that infrastructure, allowing SPH to expand its footprint and impact.”
One of the first pieces of the puzzle was appointing a leadership team, including Jie Chen, PhD, Gianluca De Leo, PhD, Aaron Johnson, PhD, and Bobbie Willcox. The identification of Chen, De Leo, Johnson, and Willcox was made possible by Augusta University Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Neil J. MacKinnon, PhD, with assistance from Amy Abdulovic-Cui, PhD, associate professor of biological sciences, Vishal Arora, MD, professor in MCG’s Department of Medicine, and Jennifer C. Sullivan, PhD, dean of The Graduate School.
“Under the provost’s leadership, there was a major planning process that got things right, thinking about many of the building blocks that needed to be put in place to build a school of public health. Part of that process included recommendations for the structure of departments, who would move into those departments and what educational programs could move. The recommendations also include some suggestions on who could fill interim leadership roles,” Waters said. “That was so useful for me, because I didn’t really know anyone that well. Appointing interim leaders gave me time to get to know people before making more permanent appointments. And I am so grateful to these leaders! They really went out of their way to serve. We are growing together as a leadership team and it has been a fantastic experience.”
Another area where the provost’s leadership and relationships have helped is connecting Waters with Augusta University’s partners outside the state of Georgia. Waters has already made a trip to Scotland for a public health conference and visits to several universities. AU is a partner in the Converge Rural Health Symposium with the University of Aberdeen and Robert Gordon University, both based in Scotland, as well as NHS Education for Scotland.
“Converge is a wonderful, somewhat novel approach to thinking about some of the issues around rural health care and rural health care. We always come up with better ideas and better partnerships when we talk and work with diverse groups of people. We’re going to make them better, and they’re going to make us better. Our education and research collaboration allows us to think about rural health in new and unique ways,” said Waters.
“It is also important to note, from a public health perspective, that our rural community partners bring tremendous knowledge and strengths. For example, they have strong relationships with their neighbors and care for each other. I think we lose that sometimes in our faster-paced urban environment. So how can we work together to build on those strengths so that we can co-create solutions in areas that may not be working so well?
Waters also sees great potential in the fact that AU is home to the Medical College of Georgia, the state’s only public academic medical college. She sees this as an important part of implementing her vision for SPH.
“As a newcomer, I see Augusta University as unique as the only statewide public academic health center. We are already producing doctors to meet the needs of the entire state. By training some of those physicians in public health or by involving public health people, we are going to make our physicians more effective when they go to a community in Georgia to work. They start to think not only about the patient in front of them, which is of course critical, but also about the community and how that patient fits into their community. This new lens will support the entire healthcare team in growing a culture of health within their community.
“We already have a strong foundation of great healthcare education programs, cutting-edge research and great people, so it’s really a matter of taking all of that and seeing how we can grow and work together to make an impact on Georgia’s health. That is our passion: working with community partners to build health in all its aspects.”