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New Northeastern program to tackle urban health issues

Talia Whyte | 5/14/2008, 9:15 a.m.

In an ambitious move, Northeastern University recently announced plans to launch a master’s degree in public health (MPH) program in urban health next fall, the first such program at any New England college.

The two-year program, offered through the university’s Bouvé College of Health Sciences, will focus on training future advocates who will address the factors that contribute to health disparities across the strata of race, ethnicity and class.

Under the leadership of Dr. Shan Mohammed, students will work with state and city officials, as well as heath advocates from the communities surrounding Northeastern, to improve health outcomes in urban areas.

“[The program] reflects Northeastern’s focus on urban engagement,” Mohammed said. “Student practicum projects can center around three issues in health advocacy — program planning and evaluation, policy development and research.”

Mohammed has nearly 20 years of experience working on health issues affecting poor and marginalized communities, both in the United States and abroad — he once served as a Peace Corps volunteer on the Thai-Laotian border, working with communities on HIV/AIDS and nutrition issues.

After attending medical school, he became a family physician in Cleveland, where he says he encountered a number of health disparities similar to those he sees here in Boston, especially regarding chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension.

Mohammed hopes to attract students from not only the public health sector, but also from a wide variety of other educational and professional backgrounds, such as journalism and community activism.

“We welcome applications from prospective students who have achieved success in their prior studies and careers, and who have a commitment to improving urban health outcomes,” he said.

The genesis of the urban health program came several years ago with the leadership of school’s administration and staff and the help of Dr. Hortensia Amaro, director of Northeastern’s Institute on Urban Health Research. Mohammed was recruited to head the program last year, and a number of professors from the public health field were targeted to give program participants unique insight into urban health issues.

The new program’s faculty includes Dr. Alisa Lincoln, who focuses on mental health services disparities, homelessness and the social stigma surrounding those issues, and Dr. Theresa Osypuk, a social epidemiologist whose work focuses on how a neighborhood’s unique characteristics impact the health of its residents.

“[The professors] don’t just focus on looking at the role of individual people’s health behaviors,” Amaro said. “They also help students to understand how to look at contextual factors, like segregation, availability of stores that sell fresh and affordable food, neighborhood safety and immigrant health, which are critical determinants of health and health disparities.”

In keeping with Northeastern’s unique focus on cooperative education — in which students alternate periods of academic study with periods of paid work experience — urban health program students will also have the opportunity to learn through fellowships, internships and work with community-based organizations, as well as agencies like the Boston Public Health Commission and the state Department of Public Health. Each student will also work with a mentor that practices urban public health in the student’s area of interest.