COPH alum Dr. LaShanta Rice is a behavior scientist with a passion for health equity

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Dr. LaShanta Rice, a behavior scientist at Johnson & Johnson who received her MPH from the USF College of Public Health (COPH) in 2008, got her first introduction to public health as a post-baccalaureate trainee at Meharry Medical College, a historically Black medical school located in Nashville, Tenn.

It was there that she took a bioethics class that discussed the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, the 40-year-long government-sponsored medical experiment that withheld syphilis treatment from hundreds of Black men in Alabama so researchers could study the disease’s effects. 

It was that class, coupled with her cousin’s death from colorectal cancer at age 22, that led her to a career as a behavior scientist interested in health disparities.

“I sought a career in the field to understand both phenomena, which ultimately led me to behavior science at USF,” said Rice, an Acworth, Ga., native. “The basis of my work warrants understanding the social determinants of health (SDoH) to generate viable solutions to new or persistent public health challenges.”

LaShanta Rice, MPH, PhD. (Photo courtesy of Rice)

From academics to academia

Rice, who had already received a BA in biology from Talladega College in Alabama, decided to pursue an MPH at the COPH because of the academic programs the college offered and because of “the opportunity to study in an environment where my passion for helping others thrive in health aligned with the vision of the school,” she stated. 

One of her biggest sources of inspiration while at the college was Dr. Deanna Wathington, former associate dean for the Office of Academic and Student Affairs and director of the Public Health Practice Program. Wathington is now the executive dean of the Petrock College of Health Sciences and the dean of the School of Graduate Studies at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla.

“I continue to be inspired by her leadership and the use of her platform in medicine and public health to address health equity issues. As a woman of color, this was important to me because I was new to public health and therefore wading in uncharted waters when I got to USF,” said Rice, who also served as a Health Disparities Scholar with USF’s Area Health Education Center (AHEC). The AHEC trains, recruits and retains a diverse and broad range of health professionals to practice in communities where the need is greatest. 

Rice, right, presents research at a Research Centers in Minority Institutions (RCMI) event in Puerto Rico in 2012. (Photo courtesy of Rice)

After graduating from the COPH, Rice took on a variety of roles in academia, including an assistant professor position in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.

“What interests me the most about public health is the vastness of the field and how it operates in tandem with other fields to make a difference in health,” said Rice, who received her doctor of philosophy degree in health promotion, education and behavior from the University of South Carolina in 2014. “There has never been a dull moment in my career.”

Rice traveled to Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 2015 for an international conference. (Photo courtesy of Rice)

Life as a behavior scientist and entrepreneur

Today Rice is the manager of behavior science at the pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson (J&J). 

“As a behavior scientist, I assess health behavior challenges. I identify and address problems, implement and measure recommended solutions and consolidate insights and new evidence to optimize solutions and ensure effectiveness,” Rice said. “I love the diversity of the projects I work on and the opportunity to routinely engage with like-minded people who challenge me. I also love working for a company that understands the value of behavior science.”

Rice is also founder and CEO of Synergy Empowerment Solutions, LLC, a woman- and minority-owned public health consulting service offering services such as grant writing, program evaluation and research and program strategy. 

“Improving the lives of others and helping them live quality lives is central to the services and products we provide,” Rice explained. “Our goal is to help individuals and groups produce a desired outcome in their health, which starts with empowering them through knowledge.”

What’s on tap for the future?

“My plan is to continue making a difference in my community as a researcher, educator and entrepreneur,” Rice commented. “My future aspirations center around being a spokesperson for health. I endeavor to be in a position where my practice and passion align, and I can see the immediate impact of my work on the health of my community, state and nation.”

Alumni Fast Five

What did you dream of becoming when you were young? 

A doctor.

Where can we find you on the weekend? 

Hanging out with friends, family or my significant other.

What is the last book you read? 

Unfortunately, I have not carved out time to read books because my time is spent reading journal articles or textbooks. My New Year’s resolution has been to change this fact.

What superpower would you like to have?

The power to make others see, feel and experience life like someone else.

What’s your all-time favorite movie? 

“Pride & Prejudice” (the 2005 version with Keira Knightley).

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health