Public health educator uses her political science background


 

SUMMARY: One of the newest health sciences faculty members comes to JMU with a diverse educational background. During her undergraduate years Laura Merrell studied political science and environmental studies before her focus turned to health care.


By: Trudy Horsting
Creative Services Student Writer

PHOTO: Laura Merrell

One of the newest health sciences faculty members comes to JMU with a diverse educational background.  During her undergraduate years Laura Merrell studied political science and environmental studies before her focus turned to health care. She completed a Master of Public Health degree and a Ph.D. in community and family health from the University of South Florida. Her knowledge in various disciplines gives her unique expertise for each of the courses she teaches. Merrell believes an essential part of her new position is preparing students with the skills necessary to work in a variety of settings. While she teaches courses in epidemiology and chronic health and disability, she appreciates being able to integrate her knowledge of other topics into these classes.

Merrell says that her bachelor’s in political science has been extremely beneficial to her professional career. She states simply, “in public health, you have to understand the game of politics”. Throughout her undergraduate studies, she participated in Model United Nations, eventually becoming the president of the board of directors for one of the regional groups. The group was comprised of 750 students from 35 different universities. Discussions covered a variety of international issues, including health. Merrell says, “I was always really interested in issues related to gender equality and the HIV/AIDS pandemic”. Due to this interest, she planned to pursue a master’s degree in international affairs. However, after being unable to find an international affairs graduate program that included a concentration in healthcare, Merrell stumbled upon public health. The knowledge gained from her political science background helps her convey the implications of policy on healthcare. Additionally, Merrell is able to incorporate her research experiences in her classes, including projects that the National Institute of Health funded. Her most prominent research concerns sexual and reproductive health and the health information seeking behavior of pregnant women. These topics fall under the overarching umbrella of health literacy. This, she defines as “how people find, how they understand, how they evaluate, and how they use health information for a variety of different purposes”.

One of her most rewarding professional experiences, outside of research, also concerned health literacy. While in Florida, Merrell worked with Congresswoman Kathy Castor to implement an informational campaign promoting HPV vaccination within public schools. As the main facilitator of the program, she found it particularly gratifying to mentor the master’s students participating in the project. Through this experience and other instructional opportunities while pursuing her doctorate, Merrell discovered a new passion for educating, and she is excited to begin her journey as a professor at JMU.

With her first semester under her belt, Merrell says she is also looking forward to have the time to explore Harrisonburg further, read some science fiction books, and perhaps join a trivia team. Merrell says, “You have to find a place where you’re going to fit in and that you’re going to bring some added value to, but also a place that’s going to fit your values and your goals as an academic, a professor, and a researcher”. 

Published: Monday, January 30, 2017

Last Updated: Monday, January 30, 2017

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