Staff Q&A with Sara Solomon

What exactly does the term “public health” encompass? Sara Solomon, deputy director of the Center for Public Health Initiatives, has perfected her spiel.

“It can be confusing, and it’s something I have to explain to my mom often,” Solomon says with a laugh.

But her elevator pitch is quite simple: “Public health is population-based health as opposed to individual-based.

“We’re looking at improving the health of the population,” she adds, “whether through environmental changes or policies and systems, by looking at trends over time related to the population as a whole.”

Solomon has dedicated much of her professional career to improving the health of populations. After graduating with her master of public health (MPH) from the University of Minnesota, Solomon launched her academic career at Temple University’s Center for Obesity Research and Education. It wasn’t until she landed a gig with the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health—where she led nutrition and physical activity policy initiatives such as the Get Healthy Philly project—that she first began collaborating with the public health community at Penn.

When the opportunity arose to join Penn’s Center for Public Health Initiatives (CPHI), she jumped at the chance to return to higher education.

“The rewarding part of my work is having a start and end to a project, working creatively with others, and achieving something, which were my favorite parts of my job for the city, and it’s really my favorite part here at Penn,” Solomon says. “I don’t think I could have a job that somehow wasn’t improving the lives of others. And being back in academia just feels good.”

The Current recently sat down with Solomon over coffee to discuss her role with CPHI, the many career pathways in the public health sector, and what makes Penn’s public health bubble unique.

Q: How did you become interested in public health as a field?
A: I was in AmeriCorps right after college, and I didn’t know about the field at all. I knew more about the social sciences and working with other people, but I was interested in health. I ended up working for a Quaker-based organization serving the homeless population and came across other organizations that were social service but with a health focus, so I went back to school and went from there.

Q: Tell me about joining CPHI.
A: It’s been an exciting time for me to start here because the Center is growing, along with the master of public health program, and reestablishing its priorities. We’re under new leadership, with Jennifer Pinto-Martin [chair of Penn Nursing’s Department of Biobehavioral Health Sciences] as the executive director. We at CPHI refer to ourselves as the public health hub at Penn, and we have newly restructured into three main components: research, education, and practice. Our education piece is the most established, and that encompasses both the master of public health program and our educational learning opportunities like our seminar series. That’s what we’re most known for. The MPH program is growing—it has accepted the largest cohort of students this year, about 60 incoming, and we likely will continue to grow. We are funded by the Provost’s Center so we are not attached to one specific school or department, which makes both the Center and the MPH program very unique and interdisciplinary. The seminar series is something we’ve been doing about once a month, where we bring in experts from the field. This year our theme is ‘Conversations Around Cultures of Health,’ so we’ve been able to draw from really a broad mix of both researchers and practitioners, both within and outside of Penn. We’ve had speakers on everything from the opioid epidemic, to ethnography, to health.

Q: And what’s in store for the research and practice aspects of CPHI?
A: Our research and community arms, as I mentioned, are undergoing CPHI’s strategic plan for the next few years to really map out what the vision will be for those components. Historically, we had a few small pilot grants for internal opportunities for researchers at Penn to focus on public health. We do a community-driven research day, which really merges both of our research and practice arms, where we try and link faculty and students to community-based organizations that are interested in research and looking at health outcomes. Then on the practice, or community, side, we work externally with the surrounding community, particularly South and Southwest [Philadelphia.] So that might be incorporating a physical activity program in a nearby school, or our Service Link initiative, which is a student-led clinic or presence at a clinic, where we try to connect people with factors related to their social determinants of health. So when they come in to seek medical care, we have a series of interviews with them where we find out if they have needs related to housing, education, or food security, and right then and there one of the students might be able to hook them up with services.

Q: On any given day, what can you be found doing within the scope of CPHI?
A: Each arm of CPHI is led by leadership at Penn. Our community arm is led by Heather Klusaritz [an instructor in the School of Social Policy & Practice], the research arm is led by [PIK Professor] Karen Glanz, and the education arm is led by Rosemary Frasso [a lecturer in SP2]. Under [Pinto-Martin’s] leadership, we have a strong team, and my role is to help with visioning as we build our strategic plan, and to link all three components of the Center—to really ensure that our vision moves forward. The nice thing is my days are very varied. I could be sending out communications to our hundred-plus fellows in the University. I could be planning for one of our seminar series. I could be helping out with a proposal for one of our arms, or linking a student with faculty members. I’m teaching this year, so I could be preparing for one of my lectures. I do a lot of mentoring with students around where they do their fieldwork placement. I think it was important that they hired someone with their MPH for this position because I can relate to the students and help them move their career forward.

Q: Tell me about the course that you’re currently teaching.
A: I’m teaching the Public Health Practice Methods 506 course, one of the core classes of the MPH program. I co-teach with [Epidemiology Division Instructor] Lori Dean. We actually worked together for the city as well, which is cool. We cover very practical approaches in public health, but also some research-oriented methods that people use in practice—qualitative methods mostly, but right now our lecture is on work plans and budget, so they’re all very practical skills. I enjoy teaching it.

Q: Penn’s MPH program is one of the first multi-school accredited MPH programs in the United States. How does that make the program stand out from traditionally structured programs?
A: I think that is the value of the MPH program—that our faculty who teach in the program are from various schools across the University. The way that we’re thinking about public health and building cultures of health really doesn’t just come from medicine. We’re looking upstream at housing, at education, and using mapping techniques from PennDesign. We have classes coming out of the Graduate School of Education, Penn Vet, the Perelman School of Medicine, the School of Nursing—I mean the list goes on. What that means is it’s truly, truly interdisciplinary. Looking at health from this cross-collaborative lens is the new direction of public health, and that’s how we’re structured. We  don’t just say this on paper either. When I first came in and heard students at graduation, they were saying the same thing—they really get that interdisciplinary feel.

Q: What are some of the topics that students can get involved in through CPHI?
A: When I think of what students are interested in, most of the time it’s about which specific population they’re interested in working with. Content-wise, some students are interested in food access and food security—going beyond traditional nutrition that improves individual diets, but looking at environmental factors in which we live that make it easy or hard to access healthy food or opportunities for physical activity. Many students become interested in how they can use mapping techniques to improve health outcomes—more of the spatial connection to health. We also have a lot of students interested in working with mental health populations. Many students are interested in LGBT health and there’s the new LGBT Health Program here at Penn, which we’ve interacted with. There’s also global health, health policy, environmental health, epidemiology, maternal and child health—the list goes on.

Sara Solomon