Sagebrushers season 3 ep. 5: Dean Muge Akpinar

Akpinar leads the School of Public Health, molding the next generation of health professionals

Brian Sandoval sitting next to Muge Akpinar in the podcasting studio holding up Wolf Pack hand signs.

Sagebrushers season 3 ep. 5: Dean Muge Akpinar

Akpinar leads the School of Public Health, molding the next generation of health professionals

Brian Sandoval sitting next to Muge Akpinar in the podcasting studio holding up Wolf Pack hand signs.
Sagebrushers podcast identifier with a sketch of a sagebrush in the background
Sagebrushers is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and other major platforms

In this episode of Sagebrushers, University of Nevada, Reno President Brian Sandoval speaks with Dean Muge Akpinar, who has had a compelling career in global health and now brings that knowledge and experience to the University.

Akpinar has served as the dean of the School of Public Health since August of 2021. Originally from Turkey, Akpinar came to the United States in 2000 as a visiting scientist in the National Institutes of Health and later in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She also was a director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Environmental and Occupational Health in Grenada and had a successful tenure as associate dean of the College of Health Sciences at Old Dominion University in Virginia.

During the episode, Sandoval and Akpinar discuss her journey in public health and the school’s important role in the community as its graduates and faculty impact policy and implement community wellbeing, policy and implement system change, develop and evaluate programs, collect state data for health informatics, provide accessible wide-scale services for healthy communities and conduct innovative research. 

Sagebrushers is available on SpotifyApple Podcasts and other major podcast platforms, with new episodes every month.

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Sagebrushers – S3 Ep. 5 – Dean Muge Akpinar

Join host President Brian Sandoval as he and Dean Muge Akpinar discuss the future of public health in Nevada.

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Dean Muge Akpinar: We say that we save your life today, but you don't know because we are preventing the problem. So, having public health is really for the wellbeing of the communities and how we can keep them healthy.

President Brian Sandoval: This is Sagebrushers, the podcast of the University of Nevada, Reno. Welcome back, Wolf Pack family. I'm your host, University President Brian Sandoval. At the University of Nevada, Reno, our School of Public Health is educating the next generation of health analysts, program planners, scientists and educators that will offer sustainable solutions to impact the lives of people in our region across the state and around the world. Today's guest has been instrumental in shaping the future of public health in Nevada. So, let's get started.

Dr. Muge Akpinar, Dean of the School of Public Health came to the United States in 2000 as a visiting foreign scientist to serve in U.S. federal government agencies, first in the National Institutes of Health and later in the Centers for Disease Control. She also has served as a Director of the World Health Organization, a collaborating center for Environmental and Occupational Health in Grenada. She then had a very successful tenure as an associate dean of the College of Health Sciences at Old Dominion University in Virginia just before she came to the University of Nevada in 2021. Today's podcast is being recorded at the Reynolds School of Journalism on our University's campus. Dean Akpinar, welcome to Sagebrushers. I'm excited to share with our listeners some of the amazing initiatives that you and your team are working on.

Dean Muge Akpinar: Thank you. I'm so glad to be here.

 President Brian Sandoval: Oh, we're so happy you're here. Let's jump into learning more about your journey. You've had such a compelling career in global health and now you're bringing that knowledge and experience to our University. Can you tell me more about where you first found your interest in public health and where that passion took you?

Dean Muge Akpinar: Thank you for the question. It is actually, I have a very standard story about that question always because I started my career on a totally different pathway. After graduating medical school, I say that, okay, I want to be a physician, I want to be a clinician, and I started my residency in pulmonary medicine I did also a fellowship in occupational medicine, and at that time I started working as a physician in the intensive care unit. It was a very clinical-oriented occupation. Also, I start to see chronic pulmonary disease patients constantly, especially asthma patients. One time I was in the clinic and I saw one patient and I knew that that patient had asthma and she constantly came back to the clinic. Every month I see the same patient and we give the medication, she is better but after one month she comes back again.

One day I had the time, and I sat and started talking with her. I asked, “What is the home environment?” I asked her occupation and she said that she's a teacher. I said, okay, it's not occupational-related asthma, but, I started to ask her more questions about what changed in her life. She mentioned that they started using a new whiteboard and new markers for that whiteboard, and everything started her asthma started with that pen, an actual marker, at that moment I understood that yes, as a physician is very important for me to treat the symptoms, and treat the person but I'm still missing something to seeing how we can prevent and I can help more people maybe with that way. I started thinking more about public health and in addition to my medical degree, I went back to school, I got my Master of Public Health and I started really working with public health because, with public health, I really believe that we can prevent the problem before starting the problem. So that is my journey, start with public health in that way.

President Brian Sandoval: No, that's a beautiful story, and we're now going to get into the School of Public Health, but will you talk a little bit about, for our listeners, what the School of Public Health is, the disciplines within it and what our graduates are doing?

Dean Muge Akpinar: Yes, mainly public health. Sometimes we confuse public health for more treatment purposes, but our goal is to prevent it. We say that we save your life today, but you don't know because we are preventing the problem. So, why do we become more invisible sometimes because of that prevention part, if there is no problem, you never know that we really working on that problem. COVID showed that problems magnitude bigger and we started seeing it because we didn't prevent the dissemination of the disease. So having public health is really for the well-being of the communities and how we can keep them healthy.

President Brian Sandoval: What professions do the graduates go into once they finish at the School of Public Health?

Dean Muge Akpinar: There are many, of course, really standard route is mostly the academia. They can come and just do more research-oriented pieces or they can go to the public services and they work in the state or the local government about the public health departments. But, we have graduates with an understanding of public health like a physician like me, just you can totally change your roads and you can still stay in the clinic, but your view is changed with public health. And, also, what we are trying to do in the public health workforce, is we want the leaders in our groups to go to the policy, go to the business, and carry that understanding because we saw that in the covid again has impacted how policy changes. So, we want the people to know public health, not just to do the public health practice, but also carry that knowledge of different practices.

President Brian Sandoval: Well, thank you, and, we had a very exciting event not long ago a ribbon cutting on the newly renovated building for the School of Public Health. So, will you share with our listeners what will be offered there and what the facility means for the future of the school?

Dean Muge Akpinar: We are so happy about that space actually and I invite everybody to come and see that amazing space. But, this building is not just a brick-and-mortar for us. We are bringing, this building is the hub of Public Health and we want to bring back to our faculty, staff, students, alumni and community to work together, collaborate, and innovate together to find a solution to our health issues, and many different problems in public health. So, for example, one example in that building we have a new computer lab, and data science is a very important piece of health, especially health informatics. Like the computer lab, we are hoping that it'll help us, and our state to bring more workforce for health informatics and health analytics.

President Brian Sandoval: And, shifting gears a little bit, you started as Dean of the school during the pandemic and I suppose some people would think that was bad timing. I think it was great timing because we needed a leader of your magnitude to come in and lead the school. So, how was that experience and how do you feel the importance of careers and research in public health has changed since then?

Dean Muge Akpinar: You are right. Some people think the bad timing, But as a public health it was good timing for me, and the first thing I realized when I came to this University and the state, UNR administration, including you, you take this problem very seriously and also put all kind of different measurements for how we can handle the pandemic in the University. In the end, I saw the end results also after the pandemic it worked very well. So, I was really impressed with that piece. With education, public health changed with this pandemic because education changed, and also what we need to do for the future is change a little bit. We start thinking unthinkable things right now, and for that purpose like emergency preparedness policy, just how we need to understand lifelong learning in public health because we have the workforce at that moment, but they were not ready for this kind of pandemic. So, the Life-Learn approach is very important in education, but the pandemic also shows us some kind of our limitations, specifically connecting with again, impact economics, and how we can handle that piece. Also, we saw the miscommunication, and the not trusting the science, and how we can turn that piece just a trustful way. So, I believe that the pandemic helps us also public health practitioners to prepare ourselves much better and prepare the next generation for the hopefully next problem.

President Brian Sandoval: That we hope never comes.

Dean Muge Akpinar: It never come. Yes, exactly.

President Brian Sandoval: But, we'll be ready.

Dean Muge Akpinar: Yes.

President Brian Sandoval: So, you hold a seat on the Council on Education for Public Health, and our school also is one of only 68 CEPH-accredited schools in the nation. What does this honor mean and what is CEPH?

Dean Muge Akpinar: This is a great honor to be there actually, and serving that council because the number one thing for this accreditation and my position is really aligned with UNR’s long-term goals right now and strategic goals. That is bringing us, number one, we are part of the decision-making for public health education right now because we are there on that table and we can give our perspective just if connecting with rural health or just what is reflecting us as a state, and we can just use our voice there. Also, it is really important to increase the UNR and our school’s visibility.

President Brian Sandoval: So the next question is kind of a long one, but, so the School of Public Health has a wealth of centers in community programs from behavioral health to a dementia education program as well as workforce capacity building, health data analytics, and the neuro mechanics lab focusing on sport-related concussions. There's so much that helps improve our quality of life as Nevadans. Can you share a little more about the work that's being done?

Dean Muge Akpinar: That is a long question. We don't have time to answer that one. But, number one, I guess we need to understand what's happening in this state. Just why these kinds of programs are important. Currently, our estimation only 20 to 30 percent of the statewide public health workforce is formally trained for public health. As I mentioned, this is a long-term lifelong term education. It should be constant, we need to educate the workforce about public health, and like what happened in COVID, our centers, work with the state and just train their workforce specifically for how we can prepare ourselves for the pandemic and how we can act during the pandemic. So, we do do that kind of long-term, lifelong learning to the state employees and also to nationwide. We develop that kind of program. We have also many other issues in the state, not just in the state but nationwide like substance use. In 2022 data showed that a hundred thousand people died from an overdose, which is a very preventable issue. We have a couple of centers related to substance use and how we can serve and prevent our state, and also we do research related to that one. We also have to collect the national surveillance data for the state, which is very important because when you have data, you have the power to show what is your gaps, what is your needs? So, that kind of data is helping the state to bring federal funding because it's important to help our communities. And also, again, you mentioned that we have the neuro-mechanical lab and aging-related programs. There are many programs. Our research funding is mostly yearly, annually just around 25 million. So, we are a very research-oriented school for that purpose, but also our research is always research to practice how we can serve the community.

President Brian Sandoval: Now, and, the School of Public Health is one of the faster growing schools on campus. Can you give the listeners an idea of how many students and faculty you have?

Dean Muge Akpinar: Currently we have around 2000 undergraduate students and we have 300 graduate students. We have around 100 faculty staff working with us and we are still growing.

President Brian Sandoval: No, and I think it's exciting because, think about that, there are students out there that are going to someday be out there and helping people stay healthy and as you say, prevent disease.

Dean Muge Akpinar: Exactly, and this is a huge shortage in the workforce, so we need it.

President Brian Sandoval: So, on a more personal note, you have traveled and lived around the world. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience and also tell the listeners what you love most about living in Northern Nevada?

Dean Muge Akpinar: Yes, you are right. I work and live in many different countries around the world. What I like about Northern Nevada number one, is the people. People are incredibly friendly here, and I have felt like my home or I am welcome to this community. That was a very important piece for me to move here. But, of course, the view and mountains and just the climate are amazing, is incredible. I really like the view and everything, but when I saw it for the first time in Lake Tahoe, it was really breathtaking. I saw many, many lakes in many places. But that is the breathtaking lake. I guess it's the last one the UNR can say because we have a lovely campus of course. But, the most important thing for me was the UNR's dedication to the community. And, as a public health practitioner, and just a professional it is really important for me to see that the University is committed to the community that way.

President Brian Sandoval: Well that was beautifully said. So, unfortunately that is all the time we have for this episode of Sage Brushers. Thank you, Thank you for joining us today, Dean Muge Akpinar.

Dean Muge Akpinar: Thank you very much.

President Brian Sandoval: Very happy you're here. So, join us next time for another episode of Sagebrushers as we continue to tell the stories that make our University special and unique. Until then, I'm University President Brian Sandoval, and go pack.


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