Charlotte Baker, DrPH, MPH, CPH, Teaches “Real Data” to Find Solutions to Pressing Public Health Issues Right Now
by Sheryl Monks, MFA
Academic Public Health Practice profiles university faculty engaging with communities, collaborating with state and local health departments, or training the current or future public health workforce across the full spectrum of population health.
In a broad sense, Charlotte Baker, DrPH, MPH, CPH, is a true public health practitioner, as her work crosscuts epidemiology, health behaviors, biostatistics, policy, sports injury, and health disparities. As an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Florida A&M University, teaching takes up 80 percent of her time, which means that getting the research in requires a great deal of extra effort. Multitasking is essential, and one method Baker uses is to bring the research into her classroom. “If I’m learning a new methodology, I teach it to my students as well.” She also works one-on-one with students who are conducting their own research. And as the director of the College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences Data Analysis and Research Education Services initiative, Baker collaborates with other faculty on projects 15-20 hours each week. That doesn’t include serving on university committees and fulfilling other faculty duties, all of which can cut into her writing time unless she blocks off space on her calendar and carefully manages her schedule. Her own focus is on injury and health disparities, particularly in regard to physical activity and obesity.
“Primary prevention with children is key in preventing the onset of disease later,” she says. “If we can get them to recognize the importance of physical activity early or to recognize the problems caused by tobacco products, we might prevent obesity or lung and asthma issues down the road.”
Baker’s interest in public health was piqued as an undergraduate studying athletic training. “I was also a student athlete, but I was finding that I didn’t have time to do both.” That’s when she discovered a different major offered within the same department, one in health promotion. “I took classes in epidemiology and biostatistics and loved them,” she says. From there, she went on to earn a master’s degree in public health and later her DrPH. In 2008, she completed her CPH, a certification that shows that she can work across many areas of public health, something she stresses to her students. “There may not always be an opportunity that matches their area of interest, but I encourage them to be open and to learn how to apply their intent to anything in public health. If their passion is in HIV but an opportunity presents itself in hepatitis, I say work a while in hepatitis and then bring that experience back to HIV.” It wasn’t until she reached the doctoral level that she realized she could focus on the areas of physical activity and injury that first captured her attention. “Everything we do in public health relies on epidemiology and biostatistics,” Baker says. “Without numbers, we don’t really know what’s happened. They also allow us to see how much of a difference we’re making.”
And making a difference right now is important, Baker says.“We don’t have years or decades to wait. We’re the guys in the ambulance. Someone down the road might improve on our findings, but we use data to find the answers we need right now.”
Understanding that data is personal is fundamental to her teaching philosophy. While there are free mock data sets on the internet and mock data available in text books, Baker prefers that her students work with data collected on actual studies, from places like the CDC and the Florida Department of Health. “When students can get involved with data that actually applies to someone’s life, when they can calculate information about the whole United States, it helps them to realize these things are real. It makes the data relatable and they become passionate about finding their own answers.”
But finding the answers is only part of the lesson. Once students identify projects and collect data, Baker encourages them to present their findings at the Southeast SAS Users Group Conference and SAS Global Forum. “It’s important that they go out and tell others. We need good communicators who can explain to those in public health and elsewhere what it is that we do.”
Policies of the new Trump administration that could affect public health funding are a concern to Baker. “The Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Health and Human Services need to be bolstered, not cut,” she says. “Disease and injury don’t care who you are. It’s a scary time. We need to use our voices to tell our leaders not to cut our funding. Public safety is at risk.”
Baker admits that sometimes the work is disheartening. “But we’re here to fight for the good.” She cites recent advances in public health that help to offset the challenges. “We’re moving toward finding vaccines for Ebola and Zika,” she says. “We continue to make advances in teen pregnancy disparities.”
She’s also excited about the upcoming March for Science this Earth Day, April 22, 2017. “Sometimes we in the sciences fall into our separate areas of discipline, but it’s important that we all come together to say, ‘You can’t stop science. Science is real.’” Marches are planned for cities across the country. Baker plans to participate with her peers in Tallahassee because she says it’s an important opportunity for children to see that science matters.
“It’s also important for kids to see women in action, women as scientists.” Public health, Baker says, isn’t just about the short term. “We should always replace ourselves. If we can get students to do that, our work will continue into the future.”
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ABOUT JPHMP Direct
JPHMP Direct is the online companion site of THE JOURNAL OF PUBLICH HEALTH MANAGEMENT & PRACTICE. For news media interested in interviewing the authors mentioned in this article or other JPHMP authors regarding emerging stories and perennial issues concerning population health in the United States and abroad, contact Sheryl Monks by phone or email to make arrangement or discuss story ideas.