Five Questions with Dr. Beth Virnig

Five questions with Dr. Beth Virnig

Beth A. Virnig, Ph.D., M.P.H., joined the University of Florida as the dean and Robert G. Frank Endowed Professor at the College of Public Health and Health Professions. She is the sixth dean in the college’s 64-year history.

Most recently a professor in the division of health policy and management at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, Virnig’s research examines how patient and system factors combine to influence care and outcomes, with a focus on cancer care, women’s health, end-of-life care and racial and ethnic disparities among Medicare beneficiaries.

How did you become interested in public health?
I became interested in public health in kind of a backward way. As a psychology major at Carleton College, I discovered that I really liked research — designing experiments and being able to test whether something mattered. But all of the experiments we were taught focused on what motivates lab rats. I thought, “This research thing is cool. I like the statistics, but please help me if I’ve got to spend my career watching rats’ behavior.”

Later, I drifted from classic epidemiology to more of the social justice aspect of it. For example, we were doing studies of people with hypertension and examining whether they knew they were hypertensive, if they were being treated and if their hypertension was under control. And then we would move on to the next paper. And I’m thinking, “Wait a minute. It’s finally getting interesting. Why is the hypertension treatment not working for some people?”

What are your scholarly interests?

One is, I like ideas. I like the challenge of figuring something out. If somebody says, “Here’s what I really want to do,” I may not know the answer but I enjoy the process of imagining an experiment where we could sort this out.

And then the other piece is that I tend to use mostly, but not entirely, big data, specifically Medicare data. My interests are really around understanding health care, and understanding is it the people, or is it where they are getting care or not getting care that drives their outcome. And then it’s about how can we change these patterns? What makes something happen or not happen?

What attracted you to UF?

I wasn’t out searching for a dean position, but I was called about this one and the more I learned about the resources behind it, the more I got very interested. One of the things that has been intriguing to watch is that the Florida state legislature believes having a Tier 1 institution is good for the state’s economy. And they don’t just believe it, they’re actually investing in it.

I also liked the super collaborative nature. Obviously, everyone’s on good behavior when you’re interviewing, but you can tell when it’s good behavior and when there’s real truth behind it. There was clear opportunity, but there would also be resources with the opportunities.

What is your vision for the college?

There are an incredible number of talented people in the college doing a wide range of important and creative things, but I don’t think the college is recognized for that. And so one part of my vision is to get to the point where we feel the rankings match the talent.

The second part is to figure out what we want to grow, what are we going to value and how are we going to value it. I think there are real chances to grow undergraduate programming and to provide more support for students, for example. And I’d like us to look for connections across our departments and programs and find ways to support and enhance each other’s work.

What do you enjoy outside of work?

I love to travel. The place I’ve probably been to the most is Italy. Because, what’s not to like, right? Amazing food, great wine, wonderful people and beautiful public art. It’s not about seeing the place that makes me love it. It’s about connecting with the people, and appreciating the beauty and what this place is to them.