August 31, 2023
By Rachel Morrow, UNC Gillings School Communications Fellow
Many individuals work to keep the Granville-Vance community healthy through local public health. However, you may be wondering what people in your local health department do. Let’s find out by getting to know one individual who works in the Granville-Vance Health Department a little more!
Last week, Carmen Samuel-Hodge, PhD ‘00 (nutrition), MS, RD, associate professor of nutrition at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, sat down for an interview about her work in a Rural Academic Health Department in North Carolina’s Region 7. This partnership is one of only three of its kind in N.C. Below are four questions she answered about her work to bridge the gap between rural local health departments and the Gillings School.
What drew you to the field of public health?
Like many public health professionals, I was once pre-med, but before that I actually wanted to be a home economics teacher. In elementary school, I told my principal about this aspiration, but she said you have too big of a brain for that. I came from a family full of smart people who were also artists. They made everything and knew how to create things with their hands, and so I wanted to be a home economics teacher so I could teach people how to do that kind of thing.
I graduated valedictorian from my high school, and the expectation was that, since I was good at science, I would become a doctor. I went to George Washington University and didn’t really connect with the other people becoming doctors, so I got a degree in biology and then taught for a year at home before returning to school to study for a master’s degree in nutrition.
I was initially inspired to study nutrition because, growing up, my dad grew all our vegetables, and my mom was particular about what we ate (like nothing with added food coloring). So, I came from a family that was conscientious about healthy food and how it serves the body.
What is your role in the Granville-Vance Health Department?
I am an embedded UNC faculty member in the Academic Health Department at Granville-Vance Health Department. Granville-Vance Health Department has a formal relationship with UNC but also engages with Duke University and NC Central University.
I started the position in 2015 when I felt like UNC was not doing enough to leverage resources from academia to support public health practice. My experience as a behavioral lifestyle intervention researcher at UNC, as the Core Lead of Evaluation at the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (HPDP) and my previous work at local health departments in the Virgin Islands all enabled me to engage with local health departments before starting in my current role at Granville-Vance Health Department.
I entered this role wanting the Gillings School to have more outreach work on the faculty level, as I believed there are too many useful opportunities for evidence-based practice and practiced-based research that were being missed.
How has your training and work from the Gillings School influenced your work today?
From my training as a researcher, I know how to use research to better inform how to do interventions at local health departments. While I have a background in nutrition and diabetes research, my work at the health department is broader than that. I write grants for the health department that target clinical services such as behavioral health and integrated care, as well as health promotion and disease prevention. After taking time to build relationships with the staff at the Health Department and really understanding their work, we were able to work together to write grants. Practitioners have knowledge of the day-to-day service delivery context and community needs which they share with me and then I write the grants using evidence from research and knowledge of what funders want to see in grants.
One benefit of being at the University is having access to full journal articles. So in my role, I am able to use resources from academia and take them into practice, helping others to access the resources. Using my knowledge and resources as a researcher allows me to leverage the research and take it into practice.
I also provide consultation and mentoring to staff who are implementing programs using existing evidence-based literature and applying it to more specific populations. For example, I worked with the staff of the Minority Diabetes Prevention Program, adapting the research to apply to the specific population being served in Granville and Vance Counties. This enables implementors to use a more tailored program and implementation approach rather than just the general state level training.
Can you talk about your mentoring program, SistahDocs?
Yes, this program began out of informally mentoring doctoral students and postdocs who were African-American. Academic institutions often treat all doctoral candidates the same even though they come into the system with different needs and access to resources. At the request of a friend, I began mentoring a postdoc here at UNC.
After we connected and started meeting, another doctoral student experiencing similar issues joined the group and it kept growing from there. We ended up forming SistahDocs, a place for doctoral students to come and be in a safe space and be supported. Students would vent and then find ways to better network and navigate the system to successfully earn their degrees. The understanding was that the system is the problem, not you, and to ultimately support each other to achieve our own personal goals. Sometimes it’s also important to understand how dealing with the institution fits with an individual’s goals, and this group allows space for those conversations as well.
As I am now no longer teaching, I don’t have the same level of access to current students as previously. However, I continue to engage with my past mentees as they engage with their own academic institutions. We have a listserv where people can share job announcements or opportunities for growth across the whole group and we gather locally twice a year, allowing the community to continue connecting and networking. It’s also been exciting to see my mentees starting their own mentoring groups in the institutions they now work in.
Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health Communications Team at firstname.lastname@example.org.