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Friday May 20th

'This is our business': COVID-19 is changing research, courses at Gillings School

<p>The Gillings School of Global Public Health as pictured on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.</p>
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The Gillings School of Global Public Health as pictured on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

During a pandemic, life imitates public health curriculum.

Infectious disease research has garnered interest from students both inside and outside the classroom. And for the Gillings School of Global Public Health, increased interest means the creation of course content based on COVID-19, additional research and a heightened amount of students applying to and enrolling in the public health school.

Laura Linnan, senior associate dean of academic and student affairs, said when the pandemic struck, the school faced the same sorts of challenges as the rest of the University. She said they took time over the summer to plan what courses would look like and offer more training for faculty. 

“We also have at least three classes that I know that are all about the pandemic,” Linnan said. “I mean, we're in public health. So this is our business, right, the whole pandemic.”

Linnan said the increased focus on public health due to the pandemic has already caused an increase in rolling admission applications to the school’s online master’s in public health program — which they see as a predictor for an increase in the program's undergraduate applications.

“There's so much in the media right now about public health and public health training,” Linnan said. “People are actually learning what public health is, and how it's different than, for example, being a doctor or a nurse or some of the other health professions — that public health is its own profession.”

Penny Gordon-Larsen, associate dean for research, said the school has always had a research focus on pandemics and coronavirus, but work has been elevated since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Basically, everyone who was already working in infectious disease or coronavirus is incredibly busy,” Gordon-Larsen said. “They are working just incredible hours with an incredible amount of dedication, not just on the research, but also on media and other engagement to get the word out and to help the state and help the world.”

Additionally, Gordon-Larsen said researchers who are not traditionally focused on infectious disease are working on strategies to use their work to combat the pandemic. 

“Most faculty members are really thinking about ways that their expertise can be leveraged to improve our response to coronavirus,” Gordon-Larsen said. “Whether it's in the basic science virology, the prediction of and forecasting of trends or in mitigation efforts, there's just a tremendous amount happening in that area.”

Sophomore MaKenna McGough, an applicant to Gillings, said UNC's work on COVID-19 has made it more appealing to apply to. 

"I think that it validated the idea that the UNC public health program is one of the best in the country and that they're leading in research on coronavirus,” McGough said. "I think that it made it more appealing for me and established its credibility.” 

McGough also said the pandemic brings necessary attention to the public health field as a whole. 

Moving forward, Linnan said the school wants to continue to use its resources to combat COVID-19, but also to support every student under the theme of kindness, adaptability and flexibility. 

"Content-wise, we're on it in terms of the knowledge base and the expertise to really bring a lot of very practical work into the classroom on COVID,” Linnan said. “And then, just the approach that we're trying to take is very student-focused but also mindful of the challenges that staff and faculty are undergoing, with the pandemic underway as well.”

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