Dr. Mieka Smart and two students in Ecuador

Be in touch with at least one student every day. That’s the last sentence in Mieka Smart’s professional mission statement. As an assistant professor at MSU’s College of Human Medicine online Master of Public Health program, staying connected with students is how she stays connected with what matters.

May 7, 2020

A lot of faculty concentrate on research, and many love lecturing in the classroom. For me, the best part of being an academic is advising and mentoring students through their academic journeys, including research and life beyond the classroom.

A Global Public Health Perspective
I feel it’s especially important for students to gain international experience. Students in the United States get used to what they see as “normal,” but they don’t realize this is not necessarily “normal,” it’s just how it is here. When our students go abroad and see how similar situations are handled very differently in other countries, it gives them ideas about how they can come back to the United States and be leaders here.

I direct the Leadership in Medicine for the Underserved (LMU) certificate program, and we have had a longstanding partnership with the Foundation for the International Medical Relief of Children (FIMRC). This year, just before I took the helm as LMU director, we brought on an organization called Child and Family Health International (CFHI). Both organizations have partner clinic sites around the world with the express purpose of improving health for underserved populations.

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Ecuador to observe first-hand what two of our students were doing in their work with CFHI. These students, who are specifically interested in OB/GYN work, got to see every type of OB/GYN circumstance that exists in the country during the four weeks they were in-country. The students were working in the small village of Otavalo at a traditional medicine clinic. In Otavalo, about 50 percent of the population is indigenous. Although they do use Western medicine, their indigenous traditional medicine is equally important to them.

While I was in Ecuador, one of the students pulled a small packet out of her backpack. She had produced an information booklet that mothers can carry with them to doctor appointments; it contains all of the critical information that new moms need to know about their babies, including birth weight and how many weeks/months at delivery. The student saw that intervention—so simple and so cheap—as one that would be helpful for mothers in the United States as well. This is one example of why I like to get students out of the country—they get ideas from the work they do abroad and return home and are more inspired leaders because of it.

Broad Strokes of Public Health
Because of my wide-ranging education and experience, I understand the broad strokes of public health research. My areas of interest have included alcoholic epidemiology, physiological stress response, mental health, and the global health workforce. Being a generalist helps me be a lifelong learner. And it helps the students who come into the Master of Public Health and the LMU programs who have varied interests.

My main interest and training are in drug and alcohol dependence epidemiology. I currently have a team on the ground in Uganda, monitoring the effects of a ban on a specific type of a very cheap, ubiquitous alcohol packaging. Over the past decade, Uganda has been in the top three across African countries in terms of alcohol-use disorders. The legal drinking age there is 18, although people there begin drinking much younger than that—just like in the United States. Our research team recently submitted our analysis of the pre- and post-ban alcohol sales and found that, as a result of the ban on a specific type of packaging, many retail outlets stopped selling alcohol altogether.

Working Together for a Greater Impact
I currently serve on the committee of MSU’s Institute for Global Health. We discuss how we can combine efforts to make MSU’s impact greater. For example, many of us are carrying out separate work in the Dominican Republic; we discussed how we could join forces to make something as simple as sending supplies cheaper for all of us if we work together. I’ll soon be joining the board of the Diversity Research Network—a network of support around research and publication that conducts an annual writers’ retreat.

I’m also a core faculty member of the African Studies Center—which includes all MSU faculty who have done work in Africa. This is an important part of my identity, and I want to further develop a network here.

Student Engagement
What gives me the most joy is working directly with public health students. I currently teach Community Engagement for Public Health Practice for the online Master of Public Health program. I just finished mentoring a terrific student, Kara Winczkowski, graduating in spring 2020, who created a research proposal evaluating a mental health intervention she developed for hospital staff. My Sunday night meetings with Kara were always the best part of my week.

Most students in MSU’s online Master of Public Health are already professionals in the field who are addressing public health issues. We’re able to help them become leaders in their roles and broaden their wealth of knowledge—crucial aspects of improving health outcomes.

At MSU, we are training up the next generation of public health professionals who will tackle new problems that come up, whatever they might be. And we are developing a workforce of Spartans who are eager and prepared to tackle the current issues we have not yet been able to solve.

Dr. Mieka Smart is an assistant professor teaching the next generation of Spartans in Public Health at MSU’s College of Human Medicine online Master of Public Health Program. She has faculty appointments in the Division of Public Health and the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics. Dr. Smart is also director of the College of Human Medicine’s Leadership in Medicine for the Underserved certificate program.