UNMC College of Public Health features diverse students, projects

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By Mo Nuwwarah, Sports/Health Editor

For many Omahans, living on the brink of the worst flood in decades is a disaster waiting to happen. For the students and faculty in UNMC’s College of Public Health, it’s an opportunity to help the community.

The flooding brings numerous public health issues, said college dean Dr. Ayman El-Mohandes.

“This flood water is not necessarily very clean,” he said. “It might impact on the quality of water reservoirs. There are water safety issues, population risk issues and infectious disease issues.”

Luckily for El-Mohandes, who came to UNO in September 2009 after 25 years at George Washington University, he and his colleagues have a brand new building where they can work. The Harold M. and Beverly Maurer Center for Public Health, located near 39th and Dewey streets, was officially opened in a ceremony on May 18, about two years after ground was first broken. It will now be the home of UNMC’s newest college, established in 2007.

“Our research portfolio’s expanding and our community programs are expanding, so we hope the college becomes a visible and effective member within the Omaha community, but also with far-reaching effects in other parts of the state,” El-Mohandes said.

UNMC already had a Master of Public Health program before the college was established. Now, it’s been expanded to offer masters’ programs in seven disciplines: epidemiology, biostatistics, health promotion, environmental occupational health, health administration/health policy, maternal and child health and community-oriented primary care. The school also offers doctoral degrees in health promotion, health administration and environmental occupational health, as well as generalist certificates in public health, bio-preparedness and emerging infectious diseases.

With the wide variety of public health specialties come a wide variety of students, El-Mohandes said. The college seeks people with many educational backgrounds.

“The thing that’s exciting about public health is it’s so interdisciplinary,” he said. “Where else can you be with an engineer, an accountant, a teacher, a physical education person, a nurse, a doctor and a journalist in the same classroom working towards the same profession?”

The college has 48 full-time faculty and about 100 students and recently teamed with UNO to create a joint “four plus one program” for students whose focus is information technology. Participants begin taking UNMC courses their senior years, and they graduate one year later with a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Public Health in biostatistics.

Another method the school is using to recruit students is a streaming program with Wayne State, Chadron State, Peru State and UNK, in which honors students are pre-admitted into the program during their junior years.

Current projects for the students and faculty include studying climate change, emergency preparedness, wellness amongst adolescent populations and even the connection between cell phones and brain cancer. The challenge is tackling all of those at once, El-Mohandes said.

“I cannot ignore the environmental health and only deal with condom use amongst sexually active boys,” he said. “The next environmental disaster is not waiting for boys to put condoms on.”

Nebraska’s come a long way in the public health field, El-Mohandes said. It’s gone from having just three departments of public health to 18. Still, there’s lots of work left in making sure the health message is “vibrant and omnipresent.”

“We want people to focus on health, not wait until they get sick,” El-Mohandes said. “We want people to ask themselves, ‘What have I done for my health today?'”

To achieve these goals, the college needs graduates. The number of applications continues to increase, and students are coming from nearby states that lack public health schools, such as Kansas, South Dakota and North Dakota.

“We try to attract students from there so they can go back and serve their own populations,” El-Mohandes said. “Hopefully, our graduates become recognized all over the nation and globally.”

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