School of Public Health

SPH news

Posted Date: June 11, 2021

By Sally Crocker

Dr. Katie Pelch

Dr. Katie Pelch

Katie Pelch, PhD, wants you to know what’s in our environment and how the chemicals we’re exposed to every day may affect our health.

Dr. Pelch is a part-time Assistant Professor, Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology, in the HSC School of Public Health (SPH), where she teaches courses in environmental health.

She and a collaborative group of scientists from universities and non-profit agencies around the U.S. have released the PFAS-Tox Database, a public health resource to support governments, organizations and communities in making informed decisions about the risks that chemicals pose to people and the planet.

The database looks at Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances – PFAS for short – a large class of synthetic chemicals that are widely used in consumer products and industrial processes.

Chemicals like these are often added to products because of their greaseproof, stain-proof, waterproof and nonstick properties. Items like raincoats, nonstick pans, stain-proof carpets and dental floss are examples.

Often referred to as “forever chemicals,” PFAS are extremely persistent and can build up in the bodies of humans and animals. They have one of the strongest chemical bonds, can be highly mobile, spreading quickly in the environment, and can be harmful even at extremely low doses.

“PFAS contamination has grown into a serious global health threat, and our goal in developing the database has been to help citizens, communities and those working to protect human and environmental health stay aware and informed,” Dr. Pelch said.

“PFAS covers a wide class of man-made chemicals – up to 9,000 – that we can be exposed to through personal care products, our air and drinking water,” she noted. “They are not currently regulated, and there have been some large, prominent legal cases in the last several decades where these chemicals were linked to adverse health outcomes including hypertension, cancer, suppressed immune systems in children and other problems.”

A landmark case that SPH students explore in one of Dr. Pelch’s courses involves citizens’ experiences in one of the largest U.S. community-organized studies, where it was discovered that a DuPont factory in West Virginia had been releasing large amounts of chemicals into the drinking water supply. The community was heavily impacted health wise and pushed back against the manufacturer, yet there are still no regulations on this chemical.

This is just one example of what prompted Dr. Pelch and colleagues to look further into PFAS and develop the database. Today it is used by government agencies, manufacturers involved with or working to avoid these types of chemical combinations in their products, citizen groups and organizations lobbying for change.

Although this work is outside of Dr. Pelch’s instructional role within the SPH, it informs her teaching and goes a long way in providing her students with a real-world perspective on how the practices of the chemical industry threaten public health and reveal why there is a need for more stringent government regulation.

While her primary interest area involves public water supply safety, Dr. Pelch works with others in the field addressing PFAS safety across clothing, food products, textile treatment and other consumer goods. She also works directly with communities and legislators across the U.S. to raise awareness and advocate for industry standards.

The PFAS database and resulting work by Dr. Pelch and fellow scientists has been sent to the National Academies of Sciences & Medicine, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), various state-level health and environmental agencies and both domestic and international non-profit organizations.

“This is a global issue and one we should all be concerned about. States and communities are leading the way in taking action, which is good news, but there is still room for improvement and a lot of knowledge still to be shared with the public,” she said.

“The impetus behind our work in making the science easier to access and follow is the direct impact it can have on communities and their safety,” Dr. Pelch said.

Mun Ray Lewis
Posted Date: June 9, 2021

By Sally Crocker

Mun Ray LewisThree School of Public Health (SPH) researchers at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth (HSC) – Eun-Young Mun, PhD, site Principal Investigator, and Melissa A. Lewis, PhD, of the Department of Health Behavior and Health Systems, and Zhengyang Zhou, PhD, Biostatistics and Epidemiology – are collaborating with Principal Investigator Dr. Anne Ray at the University of Kentucky College of Public Health on a new project to create and test a web application designed to reduce alcohol use and risky sexual behaviors among first-year college students.

This new project is funded by a five-year, more than $3 million grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), through the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This collaborative project builds on the previous work in this area by Dr. Lewis, Dr. Mun and Dr. Ray.

Dr. Lewis is nationally recognized for her research on risky sexual behaviors and alcohol use among young adults, and Dr. Mun is a nationally recognized expert in pooling data from brief alcohol intervention studies to provide large-scale evidence of comparative effectiveness and suggest ideas to improve intervention strategies. Dr. Mun first connected with Dr. Ray in 2011, beginning as her postdoctoral mentor at Rutgers University. Dr. Ray brings expertise in Dissemination and Implementation Science to design and adapt technology-delivered interventions for greater impact.

Research has found that freshman year of college can be an especially vulnerable time for hazardous drinking, with potential consequences even more dangerous than parents may realize.

According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 54.9% of full-time college students aged 18-22 drank alcohol in the previous month, and 36.9% engaged in binge drinking. One in three college students have reported drinking 5 or more alcoholic beverages in a row, with 1 in 10 drinking 10+ in a row.

College drinking has been linked to increased risky sexual behaviors, including unplanned and unprotected sex, potentially leading to negative health outcomes like sexually transmitted infections or dangers from sexual victimization.

“Although some students come to college with some experience in drinking, others do not, and there are many factors of college life, social interactions with peers and other influences that can intensify the problem even more,” Dr. Ray said. “While alcohol education programs do exist, many pay little to no attention to the risky sexual dangers that can result from alcohol use.”

With support from the National Association of Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (NASPA), this new study will seek input from Student Affairs personnel, including those at the University of North Texas and University of Kentucky, prior to developing, pilot testing and implementing technology-enhanced feedback for students that can be applied nationally on other campuses. Student input will also be solicited throughout the development process.

A web application will engage students each week throughout their first semester in brief, user-friendly surveys about their alcohol use and sexual activity, providing individualized feedback and text reminders, encouraging them to reflect on their behavioral patterns and offering strategies to reduce risk.

The feedback, Dr. Mun noted, will be very tailored and personal, “much like the way Netflix and other responsive companies learn about you and make recommendations accordingly.”

“Many college campuses have programs addressing alcohol use and programs focused on risky sexual issues, but not often tackling both together,” Dr. Ray said. “What’s also unique about this new study is that rather than offering a single module of training or information session students might attend at a certain point, this application has the real-time, real-world capability to stay at the forefront of students’ minds throughout the semester.”

The value of bringing both student voices and the perspectives of Student Affairs representatives into the development and pilot stages, Dr. Lewis explained, will help the researchers learn more about what these users want to see in a program for their campus.

“Their feedback will give us valuable insight into what works, what they like and where we can make refinements, so that by the end of the project, we will have a tangible product that campuses will be ready to put into place,” Dr. Lewis said.

Other investigators on the project include Drs. Jerod Stapleton, Heather Bush and Seth Himelhoch at the University of Kentucky, and Dr. Dave Buller at Klein Buendel.

Scott Walters
Posted Date: June 8, 2021

By Sally Crocker

Scott Walters

Dr. Scott Walters

He didn’t know it at the time, but when Dr. Scott Walters was growing up in San Diego in the mid 1980s, a next-door neighbor was concealing a homemade meth lab just across the fence and mere steps away from his bedroom window.

For quite some time, concerned parents in his family’s quiet cul-de-sac had reached out to police with suspicions about unusual comings and goings in the neighborhood, strange cars outside at odd hours, sometimes loud words or disagreements in the street.

A neighborhood watch was formed. Parents took pictures and wrote down license plates, but the drug trade was so prevalent in California at the time, officials could hardly address all the concerns from this and numerous other neighborhoods.

Drug activity was happening all over, in suburban residential areas where these illicit operations would be least suspected, to abandoned properties and rural geographies into the valleys, mountains and open desert beyond.

“Southern California was considered the methamphetamine capital of the world 35 years ago. In one single day in 1989, dozens of makeshift meth labs were raided by authorities in a surprising reveal of what had been lurking right next door,” said Dr. Walters, now a Regents Professor at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth (HSC) School of Public Health (SPH), and Chair of a multi-state initiative funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to combat the U.S. opioid crisis.

“The Los Angeles Times reported that day’s events of massive, coordinated raids throughout southern California were the largest drug bust in U.S. history,” Dr. Walters noted.

“Now, decades later, the war on drugs is still being waged, with new names and formulations that have entered the market, even more capable of devastating communities, families and the lives of those who use them.”

Working to solve the problem

Since 2019, Dr. Walters has served as Steering Committee Chair for the HEALing Communities Study, part of the NIH HEAL (Helping to End Addiction Long-Term) Initiative, an aggressive, trans-agency effort to speed scientific solutions to stem this public health crisis.

More than $350 million has been designated to this multi-year study under a cooperative agreement supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of NIH, in partnership with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

The study’s goal is to reduce deaths by at least 40% over a three-year period in nearly 70 U.S. communities hit hardest by the opioid crisis – and to create a national model for saving future lives.

In the U.S. region that includes Texas, data comparing years 2020 to 2019 showed that use of the powerful, synthetic drug fentanyl went up by 57% and that methamphetamine use increased by 19%. Heroin use was 31% higher for 2020 than 2019.

In Texas specifically, according to the CDC, drug overdose deaths increased 34% – rising by more than one third – in 2020 versus 2019.

“The big takeaway here is the rise of fentanyl use, which explains why more people are dying,” Dr. Walters said.

Fentanyl is similar to morphine but 50-100 times more potent, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Fentanyl is cheap to manufacture, but dosage impact can be unpredictable. Increasingly, it is being mixed with heroin or taken with oxycodone medications to even deadlier effect.

One of the most tragic effects of this drug is that it can cause involuntary muscle contractions, seizing and paralyzing vital parts of the body like the throat and chest before lifesaving treatment can be given.

Taking solutions to the streets

Dr. Walters’ work has long focused on developing evidence-based solutions for substance use and other problem behaviors. Over time, he has become increasingly interested in implementation science, which puts into practice, or action, the findings that research demonstrates can make a difference.

“What’s puzzling to me is that we know what works to solve many of these problems,” he said, “but getting communities to adopt those things can sometimes be a challenge. The overdose antidote Narcan, for example, can make the difference between life and death in an emergency, but communities may resist making it widely available for fear that it could encourage riskier substance use.”

“This is where the HEALing Communities Study comes in, offering the resources, scientific rationale, funding, testing and other support for implementing the tried-and-true interventions that can really work.”

Last fall, partners in the HEALing Communities Study shared results of their work so far in the scientific journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, reporting on recent public health awareness campaigns and other grassroots efforts that have launched across the U.S. and are beginning to make a difference.

“COVID-19 and the events of the last year threw us for a loop. Not only did drug use go up, but many of the actions we would normally take were inhibited. I’ve just been so impressed with how quickly these communities retooled their efforts, adjusting some strategies and doubling down on others that could have an impact right now.”

“No state has been immune to the effects of the opioid epidemic,” Dr. Walters said. “We all benefit from working together on this problem.”

As a young adult in San Diego, Dr. Walters never imagined where his future might lead, yet the impact of his work now and the work of others is clear – solutions to the nation’s drug crisis are just as needed today as they were decades ago.

“Turning a problem of this magnitude around isn’t easy or quick, but it’s clear we make better inroads when we all work together,” he said.

Diana Cervantes. Assistant Professor Biostatistics & Epidemiology
Posted Date: May 27, 2021

By Sally Crocker

Diana Cervantes. Assistant Professor Biostatistics & Epidemiology

Dr. Diana Cervantes

Dr. Diana Cervantes has spent the last year keeping people informed and updated on all things coronavirus, and now she’s being recognized as one of Fort Worth Inc.’s “400 Most Influential People” for helping protect the community’s health during the pandemic.

Dr. Cervantes is an Assistant Professor and Director of the Master of Public Health (MPH) graduate studies program in Epidemiology at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth (HSC) School of Public Health (SPH).

She will be honored along with other award recipients at an upcoming Fort Worth Inc. 2021 Person of the Year reception.

Over the last year, Dr. Cervantes has given countless media interviews on TV, radio and online to answer some of the public’s top questions on COVID-19.

In the pandemic’s early days, and during other peak times as COVID cases resurged at different points in 2020, up through release of the COVID vaccines, it wasn’t at all unusual for Dr. Cervantes to take 3 to 4 calls from different reporters each day.

She’s became a familiar face across North Texas, reassuring the community and advising on ways to stay safe during a public health crisis that most people today had never before experienced in their lifetimes.

“Very little was known about the virus at first, so people wanted help in sorting through the precautions and ways of protecting themselves and their families,” Dr. Cervantes said. “Anytime pandemic restrictions went into place or were lifted, or as we approached holidays, seasonal events, closures and cancellations, there were more questions.”

What were some of most common questions she received?

“How long is this going to last … when can we get back to normal – those were the big ones. Along the way, I’ve tried to advise that we may never go back to exactly the way things were before. While this virus can definitely be reduced, it may always be with us in some form, just like other viruses we’ve learned to manage over time,” she said.

In addition to media interviews in both English and Spanish, Dr. Cervantes engaged in community outreach with Tarrant County Public Health, long-term care facilities, nursing homes and area hospitals’ infection prevention contacts.

She spoke at town halls in cities around North Texas and provided vaccine education to local counties and schools.

She joined Mayor Betsy Price for Facebook Live pandemic information sessions.

She even teamed with a movie historian from the Austin-based Bullock Texas State History Museum for a presentation on outbreaks, how they are portrayed in movies and what is actually real.

Finding balance during the pandemic has been a challenge for everyone. For Dr. Cervantes, the professional priorities of teaching HSC graduate classes, mentoring students, serving the university and collaborating with SPH community partners on ongoing projects and activities have remained a big part of her days.

It also takes time to gather information and stay up to date through changing circumstances like those presented by COVID-19.

Dr. Cervantes closely follows CDC updates, state and local guidance and the work of other epidemiologists in the field.  She follows research publications, public health podcasts and related social media.

She’s also interested in seeing how the public responds, for insight into people’s questions, what they consider most important and where she can fill in the gaps.

She’s been surprised by neighbors who have seen her on TV and stop to say thank you for the down-to-earth information she’s provided during the pandemic.

“It was really humbling and heartwarming to recently walk into my hair salon for the first time in a while and get a standing ovation. I just try to give the best information possible in a balanced, positive way,” she said.

Dr. Cervantes has also been inspired by potential students who have reached out with an interest in public health careers, and the way that COVID-19 efforts have broadened awareness of public health, science communications and how they come together to solve problems and serve the community.

“It’s a really exciting outcome that so many fresh, young minds now have an interest in studying public health and taking the field to a whole new level,” she said.

One of her biggest fans has always been her mother. As immigrants from Mexico many years ago, her parents were proud to see their children grow up and become a part of caring for their communities in Texas.

“The rest of my family is proud too,” she laughed, “but also a little amused that other people really want to hear the things I tell them at home all the time.”

Joanna Li
Posted Date: May 25, 2021

By Sally Crocker

Joanna Li 2021Working as a Public Health Nutritionist in the Greater New York area is a big job. School of Public Health (SPH) 2021 honors graduate Joanna Li understands the job well from experience, having spent three years traveling through different boroughs and neighborhoods to deliver nutrition counseling and services to women and children.

Li worked through a program called WIC, short for the federally-funded Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children that assists low-income pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and children under age 5. State and county health departments are partners in this program.

Over time, Li’s position grew to support 10 area WIC programs, where she evaluated programming, led trainings and helped introduce a new system for monthly payment processing, moving from paper vouchers to debit cards.

With an undergraduate degree in nutrition and dietetic experience working in a large hospital system, Li remembers reflecting at the time on how much the WIC program and her department’s work impacted large populations of families in need.

Transportation, access to nutritious foods near their home and so many other issues influenced the overall health of not just individuals but entire communities.

It was an aha moment where Li realized, “Yes, I’m in public health.”

This year, Li was awarded the SPH Leon Brachman Community Service Award, presented to the graduating public health student best exemplifying the ideals of academic excellence, leadership and community service.

The award is named for Fort Worth philanthropist Leon Brachman, who was a member of the 1992 steering committee that first explored development of a local School of Public Health, leading to founding of the SPH at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth (HSC) in 1999.

Li grew up in Brooklyn and moved to the Fort Worth area several years ago. She had planned to pursue a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree online, but chose the on-campus experience and MPH in Public Health Leadership program instead after visiting HSC.

During her time with the SPH, Li worked as a graduate assistant in the Office of Academic Services and volunteered with the Tarrant Area Food Bank. She has served as Treasurer for the HSC Public Health Student Minority Association (PHMA) and as a Student Assembly Membership Ambassador for the American Public Health Association (APHA). She is a Board member and current Communications Co-Chair for the Dallas Dietetic Alliance. Recently, Li has also begun volunteering with the North Texas Community Table Food Pantry, helping to sort food donations and prepare distributions for local families.

Li has always had an interest in food insecurity, hunger, the issues that affect nutrition and helping people improve their overall health. Public health provided her that avenue in a broader way than one-on-one nutrition counseling or client services could.

“A lot of things influence what a person eats,” she said. “Recommending a diet of fruits, vegetables and other nutritious items is one thing, but if people don’t have access to those foods in their neighborhood, can’t get to stores because of transportation or other reasons, such as balancing time to work more than one job supporting a family, it can present real barriers.”

“Understanding what you should eat and actually being able to get those things can be quite different.”

Being in public health and wanting to serve the community while trying to stay safe during the pandemic has been hard, Li said, and she’s happy now for the light at the end of the tunnel.

She was able this past year to continue her SPH practice experience with the North Texas Area Community Health Centers remotely, developing and conducting a survey for pre-diabetic patients, which resulted in development of a diabetes prevention curriculum that health care providers can now use.

“During the pandemic, I learned to be adaptable, which is a pretty good skill to have,” she said. “Being away from family was probably the most difficult of all, but we managed to stay close through Facetime, showing me how precious every moment really is and how much those moments should be taken to heart.”

“I think all of us, in our personal lives, professional endeavors and service to the community, learned a lot about what is most important to us and what drives us forward,” she said. “If anything, this last year of living and working within the pandemic has made us all stronger.”

Smanning Photo 2020
Posted Date: May 19, 2021

By Sally Crocker

Syd Alone Dickies GradThe study of turkeys, fish, native wolves and other wildlife helped one of this year’s University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth’s (HSC) commencement award winners find connections to the people side of public health and her future career path.

Sydney Manning, Master of Science (MS) in Epidemiology student at the HSC School of Public Health (SPH), was selected as the 2021 Kenneth H. Cooper Award winner for Outstanding Research. Manning graduated from the SPH in May 2021.

This honor is presented annually to the SPH graduate demonstrating excellence and quality in the application of research methods in preparation of a final product or project for the thesis or other research activities. Best-selling author and health/wellness guru Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper, who founded the renowned Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas in 1970, is the inspiration behind this award.

The turkey industry is big in Michigan, where Manning completed her undergraduate degree in fisheries and wildlife. Wild turkeys are legally hunted as part of a large recreational sporting industry, so governmental and other entities maintain close predictions on the impact to future populations over time.

As a research assistant, Manning helped transform field data into these types of predictive models. The approach, she said, is “basically driven by life” and applies in much the same ways whether studying animal or human populations.

“Consider the way disease predictions are made,” she said. “The science helps us look to the future and predict where adjustments and health interventions may be beneficial.”

Manning worked on another interesting project as an undergraduate, studying reintroduction of wolves to native territory across three states in the Yellowstone area – a job that impacted politics and policy and required an understanding of the needs of different groups, including ranchers, wildlife agencies and other stakeholders.

“Like many of the conversations the world has faced around COVID-19 over the last year, a lot hinged on balancing the needs of those involved and taking their different perspectives and risk factors into account,” she said.

“Sometimes my job was more about managing people and negotiating with different groups than about managing the wildlife.”

Seeing the people applications to this type of work ultimately led Manning to public health and HSC.

Math and science were strong areas for her, providing a natural transition toward a master’s in epidemiology and biostatistics. She matched with SPH Assistant Professor Dr. Zhengyang Zhou and recently completed a data methods paper for publication that is hoped to give other researchers improved ability for uncovering the links between certain diseases and genes.

An interesting year
There have been many ups and downs for students during the pandemic. Thirteen months ago, Manning was living with her brother and another roommate, both state troopers for the Department of Public Safety.

When they were assigned to COVID-19 screenings at the airport, the three agreed that the risks might be too high for Manning to stay. She wanted to keep her parents safe, so moving home wasn’t a good option either.

She moved into her boyfriend’s one-bedroom apartment, where they made do for a while with three cats who didn’t get along, personal possessions that hardly fit and limited space for laptops and work.

Within a few months, they were fortunate to find larger space where she no longer had to live out of a suitcase or double purpose the kitchen table as her desk.

“I missed studying at the library and getting together with friends,” Manning said. “My boyfriend left for work every day, and I did everything from home. There are a couple student research coworkers I never had a chance to meet in person before we graduated.”

Today Manning is fully vaccinated and feeling encouraged, with plans to start meeting friends for lunch on a patio, spending time with her family again, and getting back to the rock-climbing gym and other things she most enjoys.

She’s also excited about her new job with the HSC Department of Pharmacotherapy, as a Senior Research Associate, Data Analyst Health Services.

“I’m looking forward to getting back to life and entering my next stage,” she said.

Sph Collage 5
Posted Date: May 12, 2021

By Sally Crocker

Sph Collage 5Food has been an inspiration to student Amber Deckard’s academic career path and community service endeavors for as long as she can remember.

Deckard – winner of this year’s University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth (HSC) School of Public Health (SPH) Dean’s Commencement Award for Academic Achievement – grew up volunteering at food pantries with her family.

Her parents and siblings were very involved, and she became passionate about helping others in this way as well.

At the time, she hadn’t yet heard terms like “food insecurity” or studied the issues around challenges that people can face in their access to healthy, nutritious foods or finding resources to feed their families.

Her early volunteer experiences led to a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and then a move into public health. She graduated from HSC in May 2021 with a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree, Maternal and Child Health concentration.

“I have always wanted to make a difference and help others,” Deckard said. “It was during my senior year in undergraduate school that I took a step back to consider how food-related issues affect not just individuals but also communities and entire populations.”

“I began to see how I could make a bigger impact on health and nutrition by getting involved at the broader, public health level – this is what led me to HSC.”

Early into her graduate program, Deckard was matched to a research assistant position with FitWorth, the healthy city initiative championed by Mayor Betsy Price and the Fort Worth City Council and now supported by HSC.

Deckard has managed social media; worked on town halls, health fairs and community events; and engaged with citizens in conversations and action to build a healthier community.

When the pandemic hit, she helped FitWorth go virtual, with an online Tour de Fort Worth cycling event and a walking challenge where participants logged healthy steps and celebrated progress along the way.

She was also onboard when the program partnered with the Fort Worth Independent School District (FWISD) to engage students of all ages, along with their families, in healthy lifestyle activities and goal setting.

For her SPH community internship experience, Deckard planned the FitWorth-FWISD Spring Wellness program that featured different health topics for each month from January through May 2021. The program has covered everything from nutrition to physical and mental health, staying active and more.

It’s estimated that the program has reached more than 85,000 students at every grade level, from elementary and middle school to high school. These students’ efforts have contributed to their own well-being and motivation, as well as cash prizes for their schools.

“The program is already seeing significant behavioral and activity changes among these students, who are learning that there’s more to being healthy than just working out … and that nutrition is also a big part of the picture,” Deckard said.

Deckard, who calls herself a “very driven person,” had a lot going in 2020, yet she was quick to step up and do more when Tarrant County Public Health sent a request for students to assist as COVID contact tracers during the spring and summer months of rising case counts and hospitalizations. Her job was to call local residents diagnosed with COVID-19, to gather information on their close contacts and recent activities and provide them with resources and support.

During 2020-21, she also worked with SPH faculty on research and advocacy projects specific to women’s and children’s health.

Rather than slowing her down, the pandemic showed Deckard just how much public health is needed and gave her critical avenues for helping people in new ways.

“Much of this past year has been about redirecting and moving face-to-face interactions virtually,” she said. “We’ve all had our challenges, but the support I received from my family and through HSC helped make it all possible. One of the best decisions I ever made was to come to the HSC School of Public Health.”

Deckard’s future career plans are in the areas of nutrition, women’s health, health policy, research and continued community involvement.

“Nutrition is what brought me here and connects across everything I do,” she said.

“Food represents love, health and so much more. It brings people together. It’s essential. It has the ability to strengthen and heal our bodies physically, emotionally and spiritually, and food is a cornerstone to keeping communities healthy.”

Posted Date: May 5, 2021

By Sally Crocker




This spring, 56 new School of Public Health graduates will celebrate Commencement.

Three graduates are receiving special recognition, and a number of students are being named into honor societies for the fields of public health and health care management and policy.

This year’s Leon Brachman Community Service Award honoree is Joanna Li. The Brachman award recognizes the graduating public health student who best exemplifies the ideals of academic excellence, leadership and community service.   This award is named for Leon Brachman, a member of the 1992 Steering Committee that explored development of the SPH. He was instrumental in the school’s 1999 founding and was a recognized leader and philanthropist in the Fort Worth community. Brachman’s namesake award is presented annually to a public health student in the MPH or MHA program demonstrating exemplary academic achievement in his or her graduate course of study.

Sydney Manning is receiving this year’s Kenneth Cooper Award.The Kenneth H. Cooper Award for Outstanding Research is presented each year to a public health student who demonstrates excellence and quality in the application of research methods in preparation of a final product for the thesis or other research activities. Best-selling author and health/wellness guru Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper, who started the famous Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas in 1970, is the inspiration behind this award.

Amber Deckard is being recognized as this year’s Dean’s Award for Academic Achievement The Dean’s Award for Scholarly Excellence in Academic Achievement is presented to the student who distinctly represents scholarly excellence with an emphasis on academic achievement.

The SPH is also inducting seven students into the Delta Omega Public Health Honor Society, Alpha Sigma Chapter, and seven students into HSC’s Upsilon Phi Delta Honor Society chapter, in recognition, reward and encouragement of their academic excellence in the study of health care management and policy.

Membership in Delta Omega reflects the dedication of an individual to quality in the field of public health and to protection and advancement of the health of all people. Election to the society is based on outstanding performance – scholarship in students, teaching and research in faculty members, and community service in alumni. Election to membership in Delta Omega is intended not only to recognize merit, but also to encourage further excellence in, and devotion to, public health work.

Upsilon Phi Delta represents the national academic honor society for students in health care administration across the United States. The organization was formed in 1965 to further the profession of health administration and the professional competence and dedication of its members.

Congratulations are offered to the following new Delta Omega members: Allison Christian, Amber Deckard, Palak Desai, Joanna Li, Edward Monroy, Alice Phillips and Angela Taylor.

Congratulations are also extended to this year’s new honorees named into Upsilon Phi Delta: Hina Ajaz, Kartika Ayyappan, Lydia Ford, Lydia (Brett) Ironside, Aminata Ka, Parvathy Nair Prasannan and Erin Sam.

Each year at commencement, the HSC Public Health Student Government Association (PHSGA) selects winners for the Annual PHSGA Awards, to recognize and thank special SPH faculty and staff for going above and beyond in their support.

The 2020-2021 SPH Faculty and Staff Awards presented by PHSGA, along with this year’s nominees, include:

SPH COVID-19 Response Trail Blazer Award: Dr. Diana Cervantes.
Outstanding SPH Educator Award: Dr. Stacey Griner.
Additional nominees for this award were Dr. Won Seok Choi, Dr. Stephan Davis, Dr. Kayla Fair and Dr. Menghua Tao.
Outstanding SPH Researcher Award: Dr. Erika Thompson.
Dr. Erica Spears and Dr. Emily Spence were also nominees for this honor.
Outstanding SPH Staff Member Award: Chelsea Lancaster, SPH Academic Services.
Public Health Leader of the Year Award: Dr. Dana Litt.

The SPH extends congratulations to all and the very best wishes to our new graduates!

Posted Date: April 28, 2021

By Sally Crocker



Ambiguity and adaptation may be the way of life for 2021 as COVID restrictions roll back across communities, says Scott Walters, PhD, Regents Professor at the HSC School of Public Health.

“Clearly, the comeback will be phased in waves,” Dr. Walters said. “It won’t be as easy as flipping on a switch, and that could make the return to work and other activities confusing for a while.”

“When stay-at-home guidance went into effect last year, everyone did the same thing at once, but now as businesses and organizations are reopening, we’re seeing differences in timing and expectations. People are doing very different things.”

A gray area involves masks. Some communities have lowered their mask requirements, while others are keeping them in place. Personal decision-making is playing a large role in places where they aren’t required, as people weigh their risks and degrees of comfort in different settings. While more vaccines are reaching the public than ever before, the U.S. has not yet achieved herd immunity, so health concerns still remain, especially regarding the new COVID variants discovered in recent months.

“Since I’m vaccinated, I think my personal risk is pretty low, however, I’m sticking to CDC guidance for the well-being of others around me,” Dr. Walters explained.

For many people, he said, 2021 will be a year of “making case-by-case assessments,” based on the number of people you’ll be around, the distance apart, whether outdoors or indoors, and who may be at special risk. When you don’t know everyone’s vaccine status, he recommends trying to meet “two out of three” conditions: being outside, masking and distancing. That means if you’re outside and distanced, there’s probably no need to wear a mask. Likewise, if you can’t be outside, he recommends both masking and distancing. If cases decline further, we might move to a “one out of three” rule, Dr. Walters said.

Getting back to the everyday world could, indeed, provide welcome support for some of the behavioral and mental health problems COVID has brought forward.

Walters Headshot 2

Dr. Scott Walters

Substance use is up; mental health issues are heightened.

Drug overdose rates are about 20% higher in Texas now than they were pre-pandemic.

More people report feeling depressed.

People have gained weight. Drinking has also increased.

The reasons have been attributed to “languishing,” while others call it collective “grief.” People are having a hard time finding motivation to set goals.

“Going into the shutdown, I could see a real advantage to having more flexible time to focus on my health, but I’ve discovered that with my old set schedule, I actually eat better, stay more physically active, practice stress relief activities like yoga more often, and feel more mentally alert,” Dr. Walters said. “It’s disorienting when we are working, eating, sleeping and spending all our time in the same space.”

Questions, uncertainties remain

The return to work presents a mixed bag of emotions for many people. Some are looking forward to the long-awaited opportunity to get back, while others feel anxious. A recent Wall Street Journal article predicts that many employees will continue working remotely at least part-time, as bosses and companies rethink old practices in response to the new ways of doing business that have proven successful over this last year.

“A manager’s attitude about the pandemic can play a key role in how engaged or disengaged workers are in their jobs,” the article reported.

“What people seem to have missed most are the daily chats and informal conversations that being together can provide,” Dr. Walters said.

An early 2021 Microsoft trends report showed that the number of digital meetings among U.S. businesses more than doubled in January and February and lasted 10 minutes longer on average.

The report also showed that the average Microsoft Teams user is sending 45% more chats now per week and 42% more communications after hours. There has been a 66% increase in people working on documents, and the number of emails delivered to commercial and education customers in February 2021, as compared to February 2020, is up by 40.6 billion, Microsoft noted.

“For all the downsides of the pandemic, work productivity has actually improved. The challenge now will be to find that balance between logging in virtually and getting together for those meetings and water-cooler conversations that just don’t work as well on Zoom,” Dr. Walters said.

“People will still approach certain activities with caution. Travel, going to movies, dining in restaurants and attending big events may take longer to come back.”

It’s been a real challenge for new employees who may have worked through the pandemic without ever meeting their colleagues face-to-face. Singles and working adults caring for small children or elderly parents have been faced with other serious stresses.

Returning to life beyond COVID could also prove challenging for pets, as cats, dogs and other companions have grown accustomed to having their families with them full-time this last year.

“The changes now will involve some give-and-take on everyone’s part,” Dr. Walters said. “The more comfortable we can all become with a little ambiguity, and try to practice good judgement, the easier it will be to phase back.”

“I’m hopeful that our shared sense of vulnerability this last year will make our work more human and give us an opportunity to transform business and how we live together for the better.”

Academic Services
Posted Date: April 22, 2021
Adademic Services V2

Dr. Misty Smethers, Dr. Tessa Bryan, Siarra Azocar and Chelsea Lancaster

By Sally Crocker

One year ago, COVID-19 turned the world upside down.

Before the pandemic arrived, the HSC School of Public Health Academic Services department was in the usual zone, providing day-to-day resources and support to students, managing weekly “SPH Interlude” events with guest speakers and conversations around special topics, advising on internships and community service opportunities, partnering with alumni and others in the field to keep students alerted to job openings and career updates, planning course schedules, collaborating with faculty and leadership on school-related issues, and preparing for spring commencement.

Anytime is busy for this four-person department and the graduate assistants who provide support, but the changes and challenges of COVID-19 were so much more than anything the world could ever have predicted.

Along with Assistant Professor and department Director Misty Smethers, EdD, MAE, the SPH Academic Services team includes Assistant Directors Tessa Bryan, EdD, MBA, and Chelsea Lancaster, MLS, and Senior Administrative Associate Siarra Azocar.


Spring 2020 was a flurry of Zoom meetings and need-to-know communications. Classes went virtual. With so many variables that COVID could present, the department developed options for fall classes either back on campus, remote or in hybrid modules.

Pandemic shutdowns were daunting for everyone, especially students living on their own. Those at home with roommates, families, pets and the balancing of schedules and workspaces with others also felt the challenge. All were concerned about friends and relatives in other households, especially those far away.

Serving the community

“As we were transitioning, Tarrant County Public Health sent out a call for help. At least 60 volunteers were needed immediately for COVID contact tracing – and orientation was one week away,” Dr. Smethers said. “With help from Human Resources and others across campus, our students quickly moved through background checks, onboarding and team assignments to be there.”

Student internships at professional practice sites around North Texas were also impacted as local agencies closed, reopened and closed again in response to COVID case numbers. This called for ongoing communications and personal check-ins to be sure everyone was doing okay.

Students were also updated on the campus food pantry, funding resources, the HSC CARE team and other assistance.

The department was inventive in welcoming new students and keeping mid-semester spirits high in 2020, with surprise gift boxes mailed to their homes, containing HSC items, handwritten notes and other goodies.

“We wanted our connection with students to stay strong, even when we couldn’t all be face-to-face,” Dr. Smethers said.

It’s an understatement to say spring rolled into summer, then moved into fall and now the current semester, as the responsibilities of departments like SPH Academic Services are nonstop and involve detailed, daily coordination with others across campus and outside HSC to support Recruitment and Admissions, help new students get acclimated and feel welcomed, and support them through their graduate program.

“Striving for excellence in communication and organization was our focus throughout, to ensure students had the best experience despite 2020 uncertainties in our country. A commitment to students’ well-being is very important to our team and the work we do,” Azocar said.

Over the last year, SPH Academic Services organized more than 125 online Interlude programs – 5 to 8 per week – covering not just educational, career-related and public health topics, but also activities focused on self-care and stress relief.

“We were looking for unique opportunities to stay engaged with our students on a virtual platform, including those we had not yet been able to meet in person,” Lancaster explained. “Wellness sessions like virtual yoga, a virtual pet café and a movie watch party helped us all connect.”

Moving forward together

The most stressful months came last summer, with COVID cases high and the nation embroiled in uncertainty.

“June was a month of questions and anxiety,” Dr. Smethers remembered.Coronavirus cases were rising, and our students were concerned with the state of the country and in need of support.”

“They were worried about pandemic safety, being separated from their families and the desire to participate in peaceful protests and speak out for equality for our faculty, staff and students of color, while feeling fearful of hate speech and negative rhetoric as they also balanced the expectations of graduate school. This was the month of tears.”

Staying strong together through crucial conversations and events highlighting Juneteenth, Pride Week and DE&I initiatives went a long way in helping students and HSC colleagues talk openly about concerns and the path forward.

The department also maintained close connections with alumni, who were facing those same challenges in their lives.

Reflections are important for both looking back and moving ahead, and SPH provided a space for that as well as the 2020-year ended. Students shared their wins and perspectives from a very challenging time with Academic Services staff, the Dean, Associate Dean Dr. Tracey Barnett and cohorts at a virtual End of Year event leading into 2021.

The victories large and small from an unprecedented time in history continue to serve as testament to the strength and resiliency of HSC students and the staff and faculty who support them.

“Our office is committed to serving our students because we care about them. Whether it’s reassuring students or helping them find the resources they need, we are here to help. Their success is a victory for Academic Services,” Dr. Bryan said.