Richardson, who is also a professor in the Program’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, expands on his background and discusses how he plans to cultivate and advance UCI Public Health’s mission to serve the local communities through equity-driven research.
Why is research in the field of public health so important?
Much like the fields of medicine, nursing and other health sciences, research in the field of public health is crucial if we want to improve the health and well-being of our communities – both locally and globally. For public health practitioners, community- and evidence-based research is how we move toward preventing disease.
Public health research is a first line of defense against disease. It lends insight into population-level disease trends, health inequities, and risk factors that inform life-saving interventions and policy changes. By nature, public health research is proactive, and we use our findings to design interventions before health issues arise.
When we invest in public health research, we improve our ability to prevent disease and bridge gaps in disparities. Here at UCI, there is a strong emphasis on equity-driven research, which is one of the reasons I chose to come here.
Can you give us an example of this concept in practice?
My background is in studying occupational diseases. This involves working to design studies that allows researchers to explore a potential occupational health hazard so that employers and policymakers can construct safer working environments.
The COVID-19 pandemic presents a variety of scenarios where a person’s occupation poses risk of infection. My colleagues and I have been looking at where workplace clusters of COVID-19 cases emerge, for example, among meat processing and food production workers, and investigating the characteristics of the working environment that led to those clusters. For example, we found that noisy workplaces, where workers were obliged to shout to hear each other, created an environment where the virus spread. So, along with ventilation and temperature, noise levels may end up facilitating COVID transmission.
What do you hope to achieve in your first 5 years at UCI Public Health?
UCI Public Health is a young, but growing Program of Public Health, with a timeline to become an official school of population and public health by next year. With this growth, I want to make sure that I understand any obstacles that our faculty face to achieving their research goals and how we can overcome those. I’ve found that some of the most important conversations can be facilitated by something as simple as a cup of coffee. My primary goal is to encourage meaningful conversation among our own faculty, across campus, and beyond. Public health encompasses a multitude of disciplines – the environment, health policy, chronic disease prevention, nutritional science, and global health are some of the major areas within public health. Public health is about the entire population versus individual health, and I want to position UCI Public Health as an integral part of the health and wellness solutions for Orange County and Southern California
Where does public health go from here?
The field of public health has gone through dramatic change, not just over the past 20 months, in response to this pandemic, but also over the last 20 years in response to the tremendous developments in methods in biological, computational, and statistical sciences. Today, we can address scientific questions of tremendous social impact, relevant to injury and disease prevention, as well as equity and environmental justice, with tools and methods that were inconceivable when I started my career.
But we still have more progress to make. The pandemic has shown that there can be huge social and economic impacts to public health crises. We need to continue to train young scientists in the scientific methods of public health research, but also instill in them the importance of community engagement and communication. Serving others lies at the heart of what we do in public health research and practice. I look forward to working alongside UCI Public Health faculty, staff, and students to serve the people of California, nationally, and internationally.