COPH graduates its largest cohort of black doctoral candidates at December commencement

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One hundred and sixty USF College of Public Health (COPH) students—including six black doctoral candidates, the largest in the college’s history—received degrees at the fall 2019 commencement held in December.

“They are pretty amazing colleagues with an incredible work ethic and goals for themselves, their families and their community. I am honored to be associated with them,” said Dr. Linda Bomboka, one of the six, when asked what it felt like to be part of the accomplished group.

We reached out to the six newly minted doctors and asked them why they chose to study public health, the importance racial diversity has in their work and what their plans are for the future. Here are some of their responses:

The COPH graduated its largest cohort of black doctoral students in December 2019. (Photo by Ellen Kent)

What motivated you to study public health?

“I was born and raised in Pulaski, Tenn.,” said Dr. Aldenise Ewing. “Although a small town, historically it is known for racial injustices. Given my place of beginnings, I believe that I was literally born into this world to counteract the social injustices marginalized groups face. Public health then found me during my undergrad education and connected me to a path where I could devote my life to this cause and make it a career.”

Aldenise Ewing, PhD, recently began an applied post-doctoral fellowship in behavioral oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Ewing)

“I remember the first time I took a ‘public health 101’ course,” added Dr. Rachel Logan. “I learned that in the U.S., black people and other people of color have poorer health outcomes for a myriad of health conditions as compared to their white counterparts. As a black woman, I wanted to know more about why this was the case. My interest really peaked when I learned about sexual and reproductive health and began working on projects related to HIV/AIDS and, later, family planning. I became curious about why people were not communicating about sexual health more (e.g., patient-provider, parent-child, sex partners, peers) since it’s a major public health issue.”

Rachel Logan, PhD, is currently working on an RO1 clinical trial involving HIV-prevention strategies in a family-care setting. The trial is focusing on cis gender women, particularly women of color. “This population disproportionately acquires HIV yet uses pre-exposure prophylaxis [PrEP] significantly less,” noted Logan. (Photo by Caitlin Keough)

How do you feel about being a part of this cohort of black doctoral students?

“Proud,” answered Dr. Alexis Barr. “It’s not only an achievement to attain such a prestigious degree from a well-respected university, but it means so much more knowing that I, along with my other black counterparts, succeeded while overcoming various barriers in our pursuit of the PhD. In my work, and in public health in general, racial/ethnic diversity and inclusion matter even more than just promoting fairness from a social justice perspective. They also expand our own viewpoints by promoting more creativity, innovation, dialogue and discussion. These are all important for improving health and reducing health disparities.”

Alexis Barr, PhD, is an online instructor at Boise State and will begin a post-doctoral fellowship in summer 2020 at the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Barr)

Ewing concurred. “To see others who look like you pursuing success in any form is always encouraging.  For the general field of public health, it is imperative that we support professionals of diverse backgrounds to increase our reach and ability to build credible relationships. This work benefits us all, so we should all take part in it.”

How is ethnic and racial diversity important to your work and public health in general?

“It is well documented that black minorities often bear the largest burden of health disparities, and as such, it is important that black researchers and others from similarly disadvantaged racial/ethnic groups, increasingly become part of the conversation for their solution,” said Dr. Ovie Utuama. “Ethnic and racial diversity ensures that everyone’s voice is heard, problems are well defined and holistic solutions are proffered. To this end, I am especially proud to be part of the largest graduating cohort of black doctoral students in the College of Public Health here at USF. Go class of 2019! Go Bulls!”

Ovie Utuama, PhD, trained as a medical doctor in Nigeria. He is a COPH adjunct faculty member and will continue his research into gastrointestinal malignancies at Moffitt Cancer Center. (Photo by Natalie Preston)

How did the COPH prepare you for your work?

“I appreciated the mentorship that I received from my major professor—she would send me information pertaining to my research interests and guided me with my job search process,” said Bomboka. “I also believe I gained a lot of meaningful experience from the MCH leadership program, which I participated in as a scholar. With regard to coursework, I particularly learned a lot from coursework in qualitative research and theory. For example, one of the most profound experiences was during my advanced course in research methodology through which I formulated my concept paper. The professor was very helpful in helping me shape it through critical thinking and in-depth inquiry.”

Linda Bomboka, PhD, has been offered an assistant professor position at Temple University in Philadelphia. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Bomboka)

“COPH provided opportunities to expand my knowledge and skill set that has helped me grow as a professional and as an individual,” stated Barr. “For example, as a trainee at the Centers of Excellence in Maternal and Child Health Education, Science and Practice, I gained tremendous experience engaging with maternal and child health professionals, lay leaders and community partners. The training and mentorship opportunities offered by this program provided a unique space for me to improve and sharpen my leadership skills in advancing health equity, cultural competence and family centeredness for the most vulnerable populations.

Any advice for other graduate candidates?

For the up-and-coming master’s or PhD student/candidate, especially one that looks like me,” said Barr, “I tell you to be intentional, embrace change, be empathetic, seek out advice and never stop learning.

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health