Lorna Thorpe runs the CUNY School of Public Health’s new epidemiology and biostatistics program.
When Lorna Thorpe was a deputy commissioner for the New York City Health Department in charge of the Division of Epidemiology, she had the opportunity to work with a wide range of public health issues and with virtually all of the city’s academic institutions.
So when the new CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College asked her to be the program director of its new epidemiology and biostatistics program, she couldn’t resist the opportunity to help develop a curriculum geared toward today’s public health needs.
“My experience with CUNY was that it was most interested in the type of work we did in the health department and that it truly cared about training students for that challenge,” she says.
After spending a decade working in applied public health at government agencies – she also had worked for the Centers for Disease Control as an infectious disease and chronic disease epidemiologist – Thorpe is now “looking forward to training the next generation of public-health leaders.”
Since her appointment as associate professor at CUNY’s School of Public Health at Hunter College in November 2009, she has prioritized hiring the right faculty to compliment the team, and she has set up a number of collaborations with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. In one, the school has teamed up with the New York City Housing Authority to assess the health of public-housing residents using epidemiologic principles. “This was a tremendous opportunity to work on a series of projects that could impact hundreds of thousands of poor New York City residents and exemplify a multi-institutional commitment to good governance,” she says.
Their first assessment has focused on older residents; the three institutions, along with community resident representation, conducted a survey of older housing authority residents and are writing reports about the findings and will make recommendations that will be used to guide policy change.
“Municipal government, particularly in New York City, has unique opportunities to use the public housing infrastructure and administration to effectively target health services to large numbers of lower-income residents,” Thorpe says. “Modifications to the physical and social environments may result in healthier communities.”
In another collaboration, CUNY and Columbia University are working with the city’s health department to design model examination surveys that help public-health leaders and scientists understand the impact of structural policies, as well as the urban physical, built and social environment, on health.
“CUNY School of Public Health hopes to oversee the actual survey data collection and work with the Health Department and Columbia University to make the data available to the larger research community,” she says. “Because we plan to play an active role in colleting data, students may get the chance to get some hands-on field data collection experience.”
During her seven-year tenure at the health department, Thorpe oversaw several large population-based health surveys, introduced improvements in birth and death registrations and guided the tracking of more than 71,000 people in the World Trade Center Health Registry. She also helped establish a public health scholarship that allows staff to get graduate training at the CUNY School of Public Health.
Thorpe says the governmental-academic bond at the CUNY School of Public Health is strong and that her work in the health department has helped foster and strengthen those collaborations. “I understand the health department and how it works,” she says. “I hope to bring resources to it and help identify policy-relevant solutions.”
The CUNY School of Public Health emphasizes practical, applied training, which Thorpe says gives students a head start on their careers. “My goal is not just to publish papers and get grants,” she says. “It’s also to influence policy and try and save lives today. Government leaders have tremendous resources and power to bring about change on a major scale, but at the same time, the day-to-day demands on those in government are so great that advancing a proactive agenda is challenging. We at the CUNY School of Public Health can work effectively to help enable the city achieve important goals.”
Like Thorpe, many of the other professors have worked in either government or nonprofit agencies. “Students have a tremendous opportunity to work with a diverse array of faculty who bring scholarship expertise as well as practical, real-life public-health leadership experience,” she says. “We can help orient their training to make them marketable to the future of their choice, through coursework, internships, research assistantships or full-time jobs.”
Thorpe says that students will play a vital role in the development of the CUNY School of Public Health. “They have a real opportunity to shape this school,” she says. “The student-faculty interaction will set the tone for who we are and what our product will be. This is not an opportunity that they would have in larger, more established schools. It’s exciting for everyone.”