Washington State University: Researchers across WSU system gather for discussion on public health efforts


How did infectious disease experts at Washington State University use mathematical and computational models of disease transmission to help shape the state’s response to COVID-19 variants? How are WSU researchers working across the globe to identify the next pandemic before it happens? What are the attributes that define linkages between animal health, the environment, and human health? What are the potential impacts of marijuana use on pregnancy? These are the kinds of questions university researchers across the public health spectrum are working every day to answer.

More than 125 faculty and staff representing multiple colleges and campuses gathered at WSU Spokane and via Zoom for the WSU Public Health Rural, Remote, and Underserved Research Symposium, a day of timely conversations exploring the vast array of research activities occurring on public health topics across the system. Environmental public health, infectious diseases, nutrition and food systems, reproductive, maternal, and child health, substance use disorders, and tribal health were among the topics discussed.

“WSU has been committed for over 100 years to the health of Washingtonians,” said Daryll DeWald, chancellor of WSU Spokane and vice president of WSU Health Sciences. “We’re committed in the ways we do our education, our research, and we are also committed through our partnerships and engagement.”

The event, sponsored by the Office of External Affairs and Government Relations, WSU Health Sciences, and the Office of Research, explored strengths as well as gaps within current research activities and began a larger discussion on strategies for increased engagement— internally and externally— to highlight the contributions of WSU research.

WSU’s public health coordination during COVID-19 pandemic
In response to the pandemic, WSU President Kirk Schulz appointed DeWald and Colleen Kerr, vice president for external affairs and government relations, to direct the university’s testing, attestation, and contact tracing effort. A committee organized by DeWald and Kerr met regularly to assess pandemic-related developments and organize response efforts that leveraged WSU strengths in support of state and national public health efforts.

DeWald and Kerr also established a scientific advisory group for the committee directed by Guy Palmer, Regents professor of pathology and infectious diseases and senior director of global health for the university. Dr. Palmer served as the chief science officer for the university’s COVID-19 response, while faculty from different disciplines provided counsel unique to the university as a research and science entity, which informed the committee’s decision-making.

“The COVID pandemic exposed major disparities among communities across Washington in terms of access to testing, vaccines, health care, and timely, trusted information,” Palmer said. “In face of the crisis, WSU pivoted to address these gaps and support our public health jurisdictions and communities. Going forward, WSU is committed to bringing its scientific expertise in a spirit of full community partnerships to strengthen public health that serves all Washingtonians.”

The two groups refined WSU’s COVID-19 testing model written by Kerr, and the advisory group later became the forum to contemplate greater engagement with local, state, and federal leaders, including with the Office of the Governor and the Washington State Department of Health.

“Kirk’s decision to lead our response with the advice and counsel of WSU experts was a game-changer, reminding us and the state that there are two research institutions in Washington with excellence in public health,” Kerr said. “It gave us an internal foundation for ongoing collaboration that supports our research and education mission and will allow us to better partner with communities for years to come.”

This scientific advisory group has now evolved as a means for connecting internally across campuses and colleges and organizing engagement with external stakeholders. Celestina Barbosa-Leiker, executive vice chancellor for research and administration at WSU Spokane, serves as chair of the faculty steering committee.

“The pandemic highlighted the urgent need to have a more coordinated effort around the incredible range of public health research taking place across WSU,” Barbosa-Leiker said. “We continue to fulfill our land grant mission of service to the entire state, and our work has a direct impact on highlighting the health needs of rural, remote, and underserved populations.”

Nearly 80 faculty and staff representing a diverse array of departments and colleges from all of WSU’s physical location campuses have elected to receive notifications and are invited to meet monthly to share information, initiate special projects, vet concepts for future direction, and strategize on collaborative efforts.

“Our hope is that you will continue to foster relationships that are already in place and make new connections…and begin to have more of those dynamic conversations that lead to action—to initiate future research ideas or to expand our educational footprint,” DeWald said. “We ask that those of you in nursing, in pharmacy, in medicine, in the College of Arts and Sciences, in veterinary medicine, in Murrow, Extension, and others all work together—to think about what we can do together to address some of these problems.”

“We are excited about the energy behind public health at WSU, the ways that we are working together, and the fact that we moving into a more mature health sciences collaborative that can make a big difference across the state—we’ve been here for a long time and we are committed to our land grant mission–we are a network across the state.”