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Faculty Spotlight: Ruth Kafensztok

Educating the future public health workforce

By Sam Uhlarik

Before entering academia, Assistant Professor Ruth Kafensztok honed her expertise in data systems, applied research, and public health practice. Now, as the newly appointed director of the Master of Public Health (MPH) program at the Parkinson School of Health Sciences and Public Health, she will draw upon her experiences to help prepare the next generation of public health workers to tackle the many challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

What does it mean to you to assume this role?

First, I plan to continue the efforts of my predecessors, Dr. Holly Mattix-Kramer and David Shoham, to grow the program wisely and in accordance with Loyola and Parkinson’s strategic priorities. Second, I am very aware of the specific public health training needs that are emerging from the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Along with Parkinson’s faculty and staff, I will ensure that the MPH program contributes to the nation’s public health preparedness through education of the future workforce. Per our programs’ mission, this means to ensure we are preparing public health professionals to improve population health “through collaborative community-engaged education, ethical practice, research, and service.”

How has your time at Loyola prepared you for this role?

I have been at Loyola since 1998, except for a year I spent abroad. For 15 of those years, I coordinated and conducted data projects for a partnership program between Loyola Emergency Medicine and the Illinois Department of Public Health In 2010, Dr. Mattix-Kramer, founding director of the MPH program, asked me to teach an MPH course. From that point on, my career started to shift from an emphasis on public health practice to a growing interest in educating the public health workforce.

I have been part of the MPH program since its inception and have contributed to its development on several fronts. For the past seven years, I’ve worked as a full-time faculty in Public Health Sciences, overseeing the MPH Policy and Management track and the Public Health Certificate program. I have worked with the MPH leadership to expand our interprofessional partnerships with other Loyola schools by establishing new dual-degree programs. I also coordinated our public health faculty efforts through two successful cycles of accreditation.

How does your area of expertise impact the field of public health?

At least two-thirds of my career has been in public health practice and governmental public health. My expertise in data systems for injury surveillance and the meaningful use of state and local level data to inform policy and interventions falls within applied research, an area that brings together practice and academic partners. Current trends in public health education encourages synergy between these two expert settings. The pandemic has illuminated the existing fractures and gaps in public health data systems and, along with these problems, a need to strengthen data literacy at the local and state levels to support evidence-based decision-making.

Is there a specific moment that stands out to you during your time at Parkinson?

We lived, witnessed, and worked through the pain and challenges that the pandemic imposed on our communities and us during this past fifteen months. This period coincided with the second year of the Parkinson school’s existence and the first year under the leadership of Founding Dean Elaine Morrato. Our collective ability to navigate the challenges of becoming an almost universally remote learning enterprise, and yet maintain solid and successful educational outputs and outcomes is certainly what makes me look back in awe at what this community accomplished together.


What is your favorite part about the Parkinson School?

My favorite part about the Parkinson School is its people—the faculty, staff, and students. We come from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and expertise, but what brings us together is the drive to be agents for social change and to find unique ways to increase opportunities for individuals and communities to grow healthy and achieve their highest potential.

How does Loyola’s MPH program prepare graduates for success in the public health field?

We provide graduates with a foundational knowledge of public health so they are confident in their professional identity and their newly acquired skill set in population health. This is important as graduates can pursue careers in public or private sector organizations or continue their graduate studies. We also prepare students to perform well in interprofessional teams. Again, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the deficiencies and challenges of the current public health infrastructure. A prepared workforce is one of the cornerstones of a capable and resilient public health system. Within 12-15 months after graduation, all our graduates find gainful employment or pursue additional education. Most graduates are working in health or public health settings, with an increasing number being placed in governmental public health positions.