Eric Pevzner honors Kurt Ribisl in health behavior

May 6, 2019

Eric Pevzner

Eric Pevzner

Sometimes, meaningful connections are made out of chance encounters. For Eric Pevzner (PhD 2005, health behavior) and Kurt Ribisl, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Health Behavior at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, that is certainly the case.

Pevzner first became interested in public health as an undergraduate student at Michigan State University. He worked as an assistant on a community project, collecting data for a doctoral student’s dissertation which argued that a strong sense of community contributed to a more resilient and healthier community, one that had less crime. He found the work fascinating and rewarding.

In 1996, having earned an MPH degree from the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, Pevzner was working on youth tobacco prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Three years into the job, he realized that he would need to pursue a doctoral education in order to advance to the level of involvement and research that he was interested in. So Pevzner began looking at schools of public health, including the Gillings School.

One day, at an American Public Health Association annual meeting, he and several others got on a bus to travel from one conference session to another. The man sitting in front of him turned around and said, “Hi, I saw on your badge that you work over at the Office on Smoking and Health at the CDC. My name is Kurt Ribisl, and I’m a professor at UNC.”

Pevzner didn’t know it then, but that casual connection on the bus would be the start of a meaningful mentorship and friendship built upon a shared public health interest.

After learning of Pevzner’s pursuit of a doctoral education, Ribisl invited him to the UNC campus and set up meetings for him to get to know the Gillings School and its people.

“After meeting with him and several other professors, I knew I wanted to go to UNC,” Pevzner said. “I wanted to work and learn with Kurt Ribisl.”

At the Gillings School, Pevzner worked on a research team project on youth empowerment and participatory action research, alongside esteemed faculty members. Ribisl became his faculty advisor and dissertation chair.

“He always had my best interest in mind, and gave opportunities for me to grow and to challenge me,” Pevzner said. “He was straightforward, and always gave me constructive, direct and honest feedback to help make me a better researcher and scientist.”

Towards the end of his doctoral program, Pevzner was offered a tremendous opportunity to work on a global HIV project with the CDC and the World Health Organization that would divert his attention away from his studies.

The work would give Pevzner the opportunity to expand his public health knowledge on an area that was entirely new to him, and after consulting with Ribisl, he decided to take it on. The experience, Pevzner says, later opened doors for his career, and it was all due to Ribisl’s selfless support of his professional growth that afforded him the opportunity to do so.

Pevzner (left) with Ribisl at his graduation

Pevzner (left) with Ribisl at his graduation

And though Pevzner appreciated the opportunity at the time, it wasn’t until he became a father himself that he truly understood and gained a deeper appreciation for everything that Ribisl had done for him.

Pevzner recalls many mornings when he would ride his bike over to Ribisl’s house to find him tending to a young baby while making breakfast smoothies they could enjoy on-the-go. The two would then walk to the Gillings School together while discussing Pevzner’s work and research.

“While I was working with him, he became a young father, and he was also a young professor trying to earn tenure,” Pevzner said. “He had a lot of things to accomplish, yet he always managed to make time for me. It wasn’t easy for him, but he always made time for me and for so many other students he worked with.”

Today, Pevzner and Ribisl remain in close contact, and regularly make plans to connect and catch up. Pevzner currently serves as the chief of the CDC’s Disease Detectives program known as the CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service. He credits Ribisl’s thoughtful mentorship and selfless support throughout all those years that enabled him to have a successful public health career.

“I’ve had an incredibly rewarding career thus far, and I have him to thank for it,” Pevzner said. “Not only did I have a professor, advisor and mentor, but I also gained a friend. And that’s a gift I’m truly grateful for.”

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