Interview: Larry Franklin, Public Health Advisor, CDC.gov and Prevention’s National Environmental Public Health Tracking Program

Larry Franklin, a public health advisor with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Environmental Public Health Tracking Program, joins us today to discuss his work.

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For background on the Tracking Program, we’ve included the first two questions and answers from Dr. Ekta Choudhary’s interview.

Could you tell us about the National Environmental Public Health Tracking Program?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Environmental Public Health Tracking Program (Tracking Program) is a nationwide effort to collect, interpret, and report data. The Tracking Program brings together data for environmental hazards and exposures, related health effects, and population demographics and behaviors. By covering these three types of data, this program uniquely fills the information gap between public health and environmental health issues.

The Tracking Program hosts the National Environmental Public Health Tracking Network (Tracking Network). The Tracking Network is a surveillance system with information and data from a variety of national, state, and city sources. You can find information on health effects such as asthma, cancer, and reproductive health issues as well as environmental exposures such as climate change, outdoor air, and community water. For information about these topics and more, visit the Tracking Network.

How could the Tracking Network be a useful resource to MPH students?

The Tracking Network collects, interprets, and reports different types of data which can be used to learn how the environment affects people’s health. It provides information about

  • Environmental hazards and exposure which are data about chemicals or other substances such as carbon monoxide and air pollution in the environment.
  • Health effects which are data about health conditions and diseases, such as asthma and birth defects.
  • Population descriptors which are data that help us learn about relationships between exposures and health effects. For example, information about age, sex, race, and behavior or lifestyle choices that may help us understand why a person has a particular health problem.

MPH students can use these data to learn about the environmental health of their community and for school projects. If you are studying health behavior, for instance, you might find our population characteristics page relevant to your coursework. If you study epidemiology, you might prefer to look at our data on cancer, asthma, community water, or air quality.

What do you do with the Tracking Program?

I am a public health advisor, or project officer, with the Tracking Program. As part of the Program Services Team I work with other project officers to monitor and provide technical assistance to the state and city health departments that are funded by the Tracking Program. The Tracking Program funds 24 state and city health departments to develop and sustain local tracking programs. I am responsible for making sure that the health departments complete the activities they described in their project proposals and that they are spending their funds appropriately and on schedule.

I work with a lot of other public health professionals in the Tracking Program. Our science team includes statisticians, an environmental engineer, and other epidemiologists. We have an information technology team that develops the online maps and other website tools and a communications team that creates content for the website and communication products like videos, social media posts, fact sheets, infographics, and more. All of our teams work together to provide support to the health departments funded by our program.

I’m interested in pursuing a career in environmental public health tracking! What types of courses would you recommend?

All kinds of public health specialties can be valuable assets to the Tracking Program. We have people with a wide variety of backgrounds with bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Working in public health, it’s important to have basic knowledge of epidemiology and statistics. If you are interested in the program management side of public health, courses in program planning, policy, and evaluation would be essential. It would also be helpful to develop your skills in finance and management. Successful project officers also have strong interpersonal skills.

If you are interested in courses specifically related to Environmental Public Health Tracking, we have our own online courses called “Tracking 101” and “Tracking in Action”. Our newest curriculum was developed for college-level instruction and focuses on environmental health, the role of the Tracking Program, and using the Tracking Network to solve public health problems. It will be available in fall 2013.

Are there any other experiences that would prepare an MPH student for working in environmental public health or at CDC?

I would recommend that students look for opportunities to get first-hand “real world” experience to enhance their formal education. One suggestion is to volunteer at a local health department, clinic, or community health organization. Seeing public health in action can give you a deeper understanding of the theories and principles you learn in class. It provides you with a more realistic view of how things work.

What is your education/work background? How did it prepare you for your job with the Tracking Program?

My first degrees were in speech communications. I thought I was going to be a speech pathologist. Throughout the years I have had many different work experiences—some health-related, some not—that prepared me for my public health career. Working in credit and collections for a major appliance company helped me improve my private investigator and interpersonal skills. That knowledge was invaluable when I worked with CDC’s STD Program tracking down sexual partners of people with STDs or HIV so they can get tested and treated.

During my time at CDC I’ve worked at state and national levels and internationally in a variety of topic areas from immunizations, to global HIV/AIDS prevention, to childhood lead poisoning prevention. While working in the state immunization program, I earned my MPH in health policy and administration at the University of Southern Mississippi. All of these experiences have helped me fine tune my skills as a project officer for the Tracking Program.

You’ve been with CDC over 20 years. What do you love about public health?

With public health, you can see the effects of your work. You can truly make a difference. Sometimes you can see that in the data like improved immunization rates or decreases in STD cases; sometimes you see it on an individual level. I was walking to lunch one day and a woman ran up to me, grabbed me and gave me a big hug. She wanted to thank me for talking with her about making healthier life choices. She told me that she has a job and was going to night school and spending more time with her child. Stories like that give you a good feeling and that’s pretty cool.

What advice would you give to someone just entering a graduate program or the workforce?

Be open to different experiences, especially at local or community-based organizations. The work is not always going to be easy. But, if you are interested in making a difference, public health can help you realize that goal.