Campus News

New dean traces interest in public health to field’s focus on community

Marsha Davis, who became dean of the College of Public Health on July 1, has led several community-based programs throughout her career. (Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski)

What is public health?

It’s a question Marsha Davis has heard many times over her career, and the answer is both simple and complex.

“Everything is related to public health,” said Davis, who became dean of the College of Public Health on July 1.

There are so many factors that can impact the public’s health. That includes the more obvious ones like being able to access healthy foods or health care, but there are less obvious, community-wide factors like the strength of the local school system and area businesses that all influence our health.

That’s why much of the research and education that goes on in public health is focused on community, according to Davis.

“Why I became interested in public health and stayed there was because of the community work,” she said.

Davis was on a path to becoming an educational psychologist until she began a predoctoral fellowship at the University of Minnesota where she worked on one of the first major community health promotion programs.

“My plans changed quickly after that,” said Davis. “Public health became my home.”

Over her career, Davis has led multiple landmark community-based programs aimed at improving the health of children and their families. While at the University of Georgia, her work has contributed to an improvement in health rankings for a number of counties and a significant economic impact for the state.

Her current project, Healthier Together, exemplifies the role of collaboration and the university-community partnership.

Along with UGA Cooperative Extension, the College of Family and Consumer Sciences and the College of Environment and Design, Healthier Together is working with five rural Georgia counties to enact community-wide policy and environmental changes that support healthy behaviors.

One of Davis’ major goals this year is to find synergies of research within the College of Public Health and with other schools and colleges across campus.

Today’s major public health issues—maternal and child health, aging, chronic disease, health equity—can only be addressed through a multisector and multidisciplinary approach, said Davis.

“Take maternal and child health, for example. We need research contributions from epidemiology, health promotion and behavior, pharmacy, medicine, social work and others to find solutions to lowering Georgia’s high maternal and infant mortality rates,” she said.

Learning to collaborate and problem solve with a team will be critical skills for the next generation of public health leaders. Innovating the education experience for public health students is another priority for Davis.

“We will need to instill these competencies through more project-based study, more experiential learning,” she said.

Her hope is to prepare students to do the work of public health while bolstering their personal passions and purpose to make a difference.

“It’s about making healthier lives possible for all people,” she said. “That is public health.”