Q&A with Public Health Professor and Associate Chair Dr. Beth Lanning

Beth Lanning, PhD, MCHES is a Professor, Associate Chair, and the MPH - Community Health Science Director in the Department of Public Health. In this Q&A, Dr. Lanning shares about her journey to Baylor’s Department of Public Health and her research and teaching interests.

April 6, 2023
Beth Lanning
How did you first decide to go into Public Health?

I knew I was interested in the physical aspect and holistic perspective of health, but my journey was very convoluted. I’ve been to four universities and changed my major three times. I started my education at Utah State and then the University of Utah, as a pre-veterinary student. I wanted to be a large animal veterinarian. Everything I thought I wanted to do, I would always get a job in that field to see what it was like before I continued my education. So, I figured out I didn’t want to be a veterinarian and switched to engineering. Then, I switched to a holistic wellness and pre-med track, thinking I was going to go into sports medicine. I eventually came to Baylor and finished my undergraduate degree in something similar to a health track. I went on to pursue my master’s at Baylor, and as I was teaching the 1145 course as a graduate student, I fell in love with the teaching of health and the holistic perspective and really enjoyed students as well.

After graduating, I did some work in corporate wellness. I also worked for McLennan Community College (MCC) as their Employee Wellness Coordinator and taught classes for them, but I fell in love with the students and Baylor and decided I would love to teach full time at Baylor in the area of health. So, I went and got my PhD from Texas A&M.

You went to Baylor for your Master of Public Health and then later returned as a faculty member. What drew you to the university?

The faculty I encountered as a student put a lot of emphasis on the student relationship, and I felt that they really cared about the students. Then, when I started teaching, I loved the idea that I could be open about my faith at Baylor. Especially as a Christian growing up in Salt Lake City, Utah, it was nice to be able to really explore that faith more and be able to talk about Jesus in the classroom or with students one-on-one.

What are your research interests?

Similar to how I got to Public Health, my research is very eclectic--although it does connect. Right now, I have two main research areas. One of those is the use of animal-human interactions and interventions to improve health, specifically mental health, but physical health is also a big focus area. The other research area is around the prevention and understanding of sexual violence.

Those two fields actually come together in some ways. With the animal-human interaction, I have done work and am still doing work with equine-assisted services, which are utilizing a horse in an intervention setting, especially helping veterans with PTSD and depression and helping with reintegration. I’ve also worked children with autism and equine-assisted services. I’m currently in a study examining specifically the horse movement versus the horse itself, looking at what the horse offers to the participant.

I’ve done a little bit with dogs as well. We have one study that I just finished with a facility dog as part of a drop-off center for kids who are sex trafficking victims. I partner with organizations that work with sex trafficking victims, so that’s where the other part of my work comes in—with motivational interviewing and commercial sexually exploited youth. I also did some work looking at the policies on college campuses for emotional support animals versus service animals.

Do you have any projects currently underway?

I’ve got several studies going on currently. I’m finishing up a multidisciplinary study that uses a mechanized horse for horse movement related to children with autism. I also have a study that we’ve put in for funding for equine-assisted services for veterans. We’re using some new technology, and I’m collaborating with one of my colleagues at Baylor and an outside colleague. Then, I’ve been involved with motivational interviewing curriculum, which is adapting the basic interviewing curriculum for advocates who work with sex trafficking victims. We’re doing a Train-the-Trainer program through the governor’s office. We’re looking at using an avatar- simulated program as well to help in teaching and to assess people’s motivational skills in working with victims who have been sexually trafficked.

How do your research interests connect with your teaching experiences at Baylor?

I use a mixed method approach, so I’m collecting both qualitative and quantitative data. When I teach my research evaluation undergraduate class, I can use examples of how we developed instruments, how we’re using the instruments, and how we’re developing our research plans. Also, with my work with communities and some of my side projects, I’m able to talk to my graduate class, Foundations of Public Health, about how important it is to partner with the community to develop an assessment of what a community needs.

My work in that area and also my global work with Africa New Life, an initiative that we have through Baylor, has really helped to inform how we can work not only within communities in the United States, but also with communities outside of the United States. Cultural relevance and cultural context are so critical to our understanding of how we can help and walk alongside our community partners. I pull all of my research and experience into my teaching. I use that as examples when I’m trying to make the words on the pages come alive. That’s always my goal when I’m teaching: I want the text they’re reading in their books to come alive.

I’m trying to use real examples and then let students get involved. I’ve got several students who have been involved outside the class helping me in some of my projects so they can see how some of this works.

Could you elaborate on your service involvement with Africa New Life?

Africa New Life has an MOU with the university at large, but particularly with Robbins College, and I am the director on Baylor’s side. We work with our directors on the Africa New Life side.

This project has many facets to it. Africa New Life is a Rwandan-run program that has a base in Kigali, Rwanda, but also in Portland. They believe in a holistic perspective of empowerment. They work with a child sponsorship program and with early child development, helping with schools for the kids. They also help with nutrition and health care. They have their own hospital in Kigali, and they do a holistic, Christ-centered community empowerment program.

We serve with them—that’s a critical piece. We are very careful and intentional about the things they’ve identified and the things that we help identify so that we can serve them. The container clinic is one part of that. We just shipped off our first one of ten, and hopefully it’ll be on its way to Rwanda in a couple of weeks. Right now, it’s in Houston at Medical Bridges getting all of the medical clinic put inside of it.

I also lead a study abroad program, Global Health in Africa, once a year with our students. The Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders has a group that’s going as well, and both of our groups are doing research in education that Africa New Life has asked us to do. It’s a course but also research experience and partnership. It’s that whole perspective of what Public Health looks like.

Any final thoughts?

One of the most important skills we can have as Public Health professionals, both for students developing their skills and those who have been in the field for a while, is listening. We need to make sure we understand what the community needs and where they’re coming from before we jump in with any plans of our own.

I think it’s a critical skill to understand not only cultural context but historical context. Many times those two are intertwined. That’s as relevant here in Waco as it is in Rwanda or Zambia or wherever else you might go as a Public Health professional—to really take the time to get to know people and to come alongside thinking “We serve with...”.

This is something I always tell my students: It starts with the community, and it ends with the community. We’re just a little piece of the process. We listen and give back to whatever the community needs. It’s important that the community has ownership, and that what we’re doing is sustainable without us being there.