Mark Vander Weg began his appointment as head of the Department of Community and Behavioral Health (CBH) on July 1, 2020. He previously served as an associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, and he holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He is also a core investigator in the Center for Access & Delivery Research and Evaluation (CADRE) at the VA Health Care System in Iowa City.
His research primarily focuses on promoting health behavior change, with an emphasis on the prevention and treatment of tobacco use and dependence. Additional research interests include rural health and cancer prevention and control. Vander Weg recently answered a few questions about his interest in public health, priorities for the department, and some of his favorite things.
Q: Your background is in clinical psychology and you’ve worked in a variety of medical settings. What drew you to public health?
A: Since the beginning of my training in clinical psychology, my primary interests have focused on the association between behavior and health. My work primarily addresses designing, implementing, and evaluating strategies to modify behavior as a way to improve health, with a particular emphasis on tobacco use. My background in psychology and behavioral science helped me to understand how psychological and social factors impact health, as well as how to apply behavior change strategies from the field in an effort to modify risk factors for disease. Too often, however, I could see that the strategies we developed would reach a very limited proportion of the people that might benefit from them. It became increasingly apparent to me that we can have the biggest impact on issues such as tobacco use and other health behaviors through the use of public health-based approaches.
Q: What are your top priorities for your first year as department head?
A: Helping faculty, students, and staff navigate the uncertainties and challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic has taken center stage. We have to figure out ways to continue to adapt our service, research, and teaching methods to the current realities while staying focused on our mission and commitment to the health and well-being of the community.
I will also be focusing on promoting the continued growth of the department. We have a fantastic group of dedicated and talented faculty doing tremendously important research and providing exceptional teaching and service. We are, however, relatively small in size. I am hoping to bring some additional talented people into the department to help us to both strengthen our current areas of emphasis (rural health; community engagement and participatory approaches; culturally-informed intervention strategies; social justice, health equities, and health disparities) while also allowing us to expand our areas of focus to other public health issues that matter most to Iowans and those who live in the other areas where we work.
Q: What is the unique perspective that community and behavioral health brings to the field of public health?
A: As our name suggests, our department is fundamentally about improving the health and well-being of communities. Community and Behavioral Health is unique in the way that we go about partnering with the members of the community to achieve our shared goals. We actively engage with the community and make use of participatory-based research approaches to ensure that we are addressing the things that matter most to them. Although we have expertise in research methods, health behavior and education, and various intervention and implementation strategies, our community partners are the experts in their own communities. They know best what their needs are, as well as the local strengths and available community resources that can be leveraged to help address them.
Q: What would you say to persuade a prospective undergraduate student to consider studying public health?
A: I can sincerely say that there has never been a more important and exciting time to study public health. If you are looking for a career where you can positively influence the health and well-being of large numbers of people, then public health is a great option. So many of the critical issues that we are currently facing, including systemic racism, climate change, health disparities, mental health concerns, access to health care – and of course the COVID-19 pandemic – are fundamentally public health issues. Further, the field of public health has a great deal to offer in the way of developing and implementing effective solutions to these problems
Q: What keeps you interested and inspired in your field of work?
A: The passion and commitment of my colleagues and our students is truly inspiring. The field’s ability to come up with novel solutions for addressing big health and social problems is also very exciting.
Q: What are some of your favorite things to do to relax and recharge?
Spending time with my family – my wife Denise and our two daughters Mary (19) and Caroline (12) – is my very favorite thing. I also enjoy reading and listening to music, particularly blues and jazz.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: Just that I am truly excited and honored to be part of the College of Public Health and the Department of Community and Behavioral Health.