University of Arizona Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health

Vision, Expertise Help Fight a Pandemic

By Monica Surfaro Spigelman

Public health. During the coronavirus pandemic, never has one phrase held greater meaning. 

Right on cue, the University of Arizona’s Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, which has a 20-year presence in Southern Arizona, stepped up with critically needed expertise to support frontline healthcare and refocus the region on leadership in public health. 

People now recognize that the impact of public health programs is both global and personal, said Dr. Iman Hakim, the college’s dean and Mel & Enid Zuckerman Endowed Chair in Public Health. Hakim established a task force when the pandemic hit and coordinated a science-based rollout of support for the region’s public health infrastructure.  

Support during the coronavirus crisis translated into a ramped up, multi-faceted effort that engaged an army of the college’s faculty, students and staff in handling community hotlines, data collection, contact tracing, community training and resource development. The effort allowed partners like the Pima County Health Department to remain focused on more urgent                        COVID-19 issues. 

Training videos, created for first responders, helped in infection prevention during the outbreak. Webinars for local and international partners shared resources about infection control and toolkits for community and workplace awareness. Other toolkits guided parents and teachers in teaching children about the pandemic. A phone-call campaign provided remote support for Spanish-speaking communities in rural Arizona counties.

Dr. Jeff Burgess, the college’s associate dean for research, chairs the UArizona Campus Reentry Plan Working Group, while Assistant Professor Kate Ellingson led the core team that produced the plan’s first draft. Researcher Dr. Joe Gerald is part of the COVID-19 modeling team convened by the Arizona Department of Health Services to forecast possible outcomes to guide statewide response. Epidemiologist Dr. Kacey Ernst worked with other UArizona researchers to create the AZCOVIDTXT project, a new two-way texting system that gathers vital public health information from Arizonans.

“This crisis has helped the community expand its definition and views of public health,“ Hakim said. “And because we’ve led with both cutting-edge science and deep community commitments, I’m confident that there will be remarkable changes on the horizon for the field of public health.” 

But it didn’t take a pandemic for Hakim and the college to experience the urgency of a public health mandate for the community. The college has been thinking big for two decades, finding ways to innovate public health preparedness and advocacy for public health policy since its founding in 2000 as the first accredited school of public health in the Southwest. 

Still the only nationally accredited college of public health in Arizona, with campuses in Tucson and Phoenix, the Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health is catalyzing global health activity through domestic and international collaborations aimed at education, research, training and public outreach.  

Hakim has been at the helm of the college since 2007. She earned her medical degree in Egypt, where she completed both her pediatric residency and her doctorate in nutrition. Hakim’s fascination with population health and her work in family community medicine caught the eye of Dr. Gail Harrison in 1992, who was conducting UArizona research in maternal-fetal health in vulnerable populations. Harrison encouraged Hakim to come to Tucson to study childhood nutrition and public health. 

“It wasn’t until I came to Tucson to study public health that I discovered my professional calling,” Hakim recalled.   

Convinced to stay at UArizona, Hakim was first an assistant professor in the College of Medicine, and later joined the College of Public Health before her appointment as dean. Hakim successfully aligned academic curriculum and research with her singular global vision. The college now holds a distinctive niche in international public health leadership.

“We are known for expanding the definition of public health service in the academic setting,” explained Hakim, who was founding director of the college’s Global Health Institute in 2009. The institute helps inform the college’s overall research, education and community efforts through a broader lens that is focused on improving conditions and behaviors of global populations. 

The institute houses a micro-campus in Ajman, United Arab Emirates, where there is faculty collaboration and student intercultural learning at Gulf Medical University. Another micro-campus with Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla in Puebla, Mexico, is set to open in the fall.

More than 900 students enrolled each year across dozens of degree options in public health, combined with more than 3,500 alumni, are improving real world issues. “These are the current and future leaders who translate learning and research into practices that impact people every day, everywhere,” Hakim said. “The field of public health is constantly evolving in response to the needs of communities and populations around the world. We have a mandate to use our collective influence to shape the future of public health profoundly.” 

The college maintains a close working relationship with healthcare agencies, governments and communities as the regional leader in public health research and promotion. It receives grant funding from federal agencies under the Department of Health and Human Services, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.

Its researchers are studying public health and quality of life in the border region, which will likely inform U.S. health policies for the next decade. Since 2014, the college has coordinated a binational Sonora-Arizona network to present its research and seek new collaborators. 

In 2016, the Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health partnered with the Mexico Border Health Commission to establish the Primary Prevention Mobile Unit, which today has expanded its health services, providing free preventive health screening assessments in underserved Arizona counties. Services include basic screening for chronic disease and health education. Materials, translated into Spanish, are provided on nutrition, obesity, diabetes, mental health and domestic violence.  

The college also teamed with Northern Arizona University in 2016 and received a $5 million, five-year grant to establish the Center for Indigenous Environmental Health Research, focusing on the environmental factors that cause health disparities among indigenous communities.

“We feel a special commitment to our border and indigenous communities in both Arizona and Sonora,” Hakim said. “We insist on a dynamic interchange between public health research and community outreach, translating research findings into community programs and transforming community needs into basic and applied public health research.” 

This mandate also is reflected through the college’s Center for Prevention and Health Promotion, which supports other community wellness efforts. For instance, an after-school health promotion and intervention program for girls at Marana’s Estes Elementary School is now in its eighth year. A similar program for boys at the school, promoting positive-thinking skills, self-care and anti-bullying, has been hosted for two years. 

Broad collaboration is key to the college’s initiatives, inspiring new approaches that drive innovation. Educating the community as well as potential partners is critical to creating healthy nations, Hakim said.

One partnership with the Arizona Area Health Education Center has focused on increasing the numbers of public health students who practice in the state’s rural and underserved communities. Another, with Arizona Complete Health, funds mobile health units that provide access for underserved populations to health screening and healthy lifestyle resources.

Partnership comes alive in the college’s experiential-based courses, where integration of community service enriches the learning experience of students, faculty and community. Through funding by the Zuckerman Family Foundation, service learning courses, like those that serve children and families in Arizona’s tribal, mining and cotton communities, facilitate teaching strategies that ensure course content meets genuine community need.

In the future, Hakim sees the long game in terms of expanding the college’s impact.  

“In the midst of challenges like COVID-19, we need to find ways to invest in and celebrate the accomplishments of public health,” she said, underscoring how such efforts can save millions of lives. 

Hakim will celebrate that on Nov. 7, when the Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health honors its 20th anniversary. A planned gala will recognize the contributions of individuals and organizations selected as honorees for their impact on community health in the Tucson region and beyond. 

Several honorees are alumni who have used their expertise in public health to make positive change globally. For example, Dr. Mark Smolinski, Hakim’s classmate in the 1993 Master of Public Health program, is a global leader in disease surveillance. A medical epidemiologist who founded the nonprofit Ending Pandemics, Smolinski was part of the 1990s multidisciplinary team that created tools for early detection and prevention of the hantavirus epidemic. 

“We believe that everyone has the right to good health,” Hakim said. “The time is right to focus on public health training and research because future generations of public health leadership will inspire    individuals to make healthy choices as a society and to then work together to reduce the impact of global epidemics.” 

Hakim hopes the gala will be a way to reflect on the markers of the college’s success. Best not forgotten, she said, are the people and partners who build community health and provide the narrative of resilience for the future. 

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