A woman leaning on a railing in front of trees and building construction.
Vanessa B. Sheppard, Ph.D., will serve as the interim founding dean of the new School of Population Health. (Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications.)

An interview with Vanessa B. Sheppard, founding interim dean of the School of Population Health

Sheppard shares her vision for the School of Population Health in a Q&A with VCU News.

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Virginia Commonwealth University today announced that Vanessa B. Sheppard, Ph.D., will serve as the interim founding dean of the new School of Population Health, effective April 1.

Sheppard came to VCU in 2016 from Georgetown University. In 2016, she was appointed chair of the Department of Health Behavior and Policy. Most recently, she served as the associate vice president for population and public health strategic initiatives in the Office of the Senior Vice President for Health Sciences, leading a team to make the vision of the new school a reality.

As a leading expert in cancer health disparities and community-based research, Sheppard has dedicated her career to understanding and addressing the complex social, cultural and environmental factors that contribute to cancer disparities among diverse populations.

Honored by the American Cancer Society as the 2022 Researcher of the Year, her innovative work has helped to identify effective strategies for promoting cancer prevention, screening and treatment in underserved communities.

VCU News sat down with Sheppard to learn more about her vision for the new school and what she’s most excited about as the founding interim dean.

What is your vision for the School of Population Health?

The School of Population Health will help advance the health of residents in the commonwealth, with an emphasis on working with stakeholders to address long-standing racial, ethnic, economic, geographic and other types of health inequities.

Graduates from the School of Population Health will be prepared to become agents of change for their communities as we strive to develop a high-performing public health workforce that will serve in our state and local public health agencies, NGOs, schools, employers and communities.

Another critical aspect to population health is communication – not just how information is conveyed but also how it is received. Our school will lead efforts to develop new communication techniques to engage, inspire and support communities in preserving their health and well-being.

Why is a School of Population Health needed and why is it important right now?

Population and public health is everyone’s health. As we saw during the pandemic, there was a major shortage of trained professionals to address the impacts of the virus across the U.S. – Virginia was no different. The new school will focus on addressing the public health workforce shortage in Virginia. We have an opportunity to create new career pathways for residents in public health as we are well placed amidst the Virginia Department of Health, Department of Medicaid Assistance Services and other key agencies.

What are the next steps for starting the School of Population Health?

Our goal is to become an accredited school of public health. So our focus is on creating an infrastructure that meets the criteria and core functions outlined by the Council on Education for Public Health. We’ll be working to build an infrastructure that supports a cohesive, multidisciplinary approach to public health education and research. Immediately, however, our next steps involve getting the various systems updated that support the usual operations of a school, for example, course offerings, records and registration, human resources and so forth. This all takes time to implement. We can think of April 1 as our “go” date, and we expect our first cohort to graduate as a School of Population Health class in May 2024. The process for achieving accreditation has a longer timeline. The good news is that our MPH program was just re-accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health for the next seven years.

What excites you the most about leading this school?

I have always thought VCU was the right place for a public health school. Our mission, location, talent and partnerships make us uniquely qualified to help address health equity challenges in Virginia. Reorganizing these departments to become one school, solely focused on public health, marks the first time we have ever tackled these issues with a united front. Coming together now opens opportunities to collaborate and share resources so that we can maximize our efforts and impact like never before. I am grateful to VCU leadership, students, staff, faculty and stakeholders who have given their talent and support to this endeavor. The spirit of collaboration is truly inspiring.