The scientist and servant
“Trying to make people healthy isn’t going to be a one-day thing. You slowly chip away at the problem. It takes persistence,” says the founding chair of Campbell University’s public health department.
Tina Tseng says it’s a good thing that her father was a physician. She was born in Saigon, Vietnam, right after the Vietnam War ended. Her paternal grandfather was a member of the South Vietnamese government, and he was taken to a re-education camp to be shot and killed.
Tseng's father got hold of a small boat and planned her family's escape from Vietnam via water in the middle of the night. Tseng was a baby at the time, less than a year old. So she wouldn’t cry and draw attention to their effort to flee, her father sedated her. “Good thing he was a doctor!” Tseng said, with a laugh. They made it safely to Malaysia, where they stayed in a refugee camp for a year before getting sponsored by McLean First Baptist Church, in Virginia, to come to the U.S.
Tseng grew up in Northern Virginia and earned her bachelor’s in psychology from John Hopkins University, her master’s in biostatistics from Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health and her Ph.D. in integrated biomedical sciences from Ohio State University. She moved to North Carolina about six years ago when her husband, Ray Tseng, began a residency in pediatric dentistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She soon joined Campbell University as an adjunct instructor in the clinical research department. Today, she’s founding chair of the university’s public health department, which offered its first classes this fall.
Tseng spoke to Campbell.edu about the field of public health, her vision for Campbell’s public health department, what she learned from her parents and what she hopes her students learn from her. The following is an edited transcript.
How did the new public health program at Campbell come about?
[Dr. Wesley Rich, assistant dean for administration,] and I were teaching together in the clinical research department. We saw that our students, in addition to being interested in drug development, had a strong interest in public health in general. We were also starting to notice that the students were interested in looking at communities, populations and groups of people, not just at the individual-level, which is the medicine point of view. Because we saw that, we thought there would be a strong interest in a public health program.
And it was the type of students whom Campbell attracts -- students who were service-minded. Campbell has a service heart. The fact that we could add to the culture of service here and enhance it was exciting, because the bottom line of public health is a service.
Why is there a need for another public health program?
First, public health centers on the fact that we look at more than the individual; we look at a group of people or a community. And it’s about wellness and preventing disease. There are five areas of public health: epidemiology, biostatistics, health education, health policy and management, and environmental science. They are all interrelated, and public health is very interdisciplinary.
The field of medicine is starting to look at public health, because this is one way we can lower medical costs. Once you are diagnosed with a disease, there is very little that we can do to take care of the disease, even with all the advances. If you have diabetes, you’ll be put on medications, and there is a lot of cost with that. We’re not trying to control a problem; we’re trying to encourage you to have a healthier lifestyle and prevent disease.
What makes Campbell's public health program different from others?
At Campbell, we focus on rural health and, even more specifically, on helping the community in which Campbell is part of. One of the biggest needs in the country is for health-care professionals to go to rural areas and provide services. So the fact that we put our students into the community, that they do public health campaigns, and that they learn about the barriers that people face when it comes to health -- maybe this community can be a model for others. We are a small program that has, hopefully, a big impact in our local community.
What's an example of how students are working in the community?
February is National Children’s Dental Health Month; and on Feb. 2, we are going to work with the Harnett Health Department to offer dental services for kids who are uninsured. We’re also working with the physician assistant students to provide some basic medical services and exams, and our public health students will provide health education information. We’ll even have some pharmacy students involved. Being directly involved in the community and thinking of questions like how do we get real solutions that work for real people, our students get a more real-world perspective. They see the barriers to health, such as not having the resources, the transportation or the time, and that will prepare them to work in the field of public health and make a difference.
What's your long-term vision for the program
I hope we grow, whether it’s more students or different programs. This year we started the master’s program with public health; and next year we’re adding the dual degrees. We’ll have dual degrees with law, physician assistant and pharmacy. We’ve already received the deposits of two students for the dual degree with the physician assistant program. There is a high demand for that, and we’re the only dual public health/physician assistant program in North Carolina.
You have degrees in psychology, public health and integrated biomedical sciences. What’s the connection among all three, and how did they prepare you to chair a public health program?
It gave me a strong background in the scientific method and a lot of the tools you need to understand the basic science side of public health. When I look at diseases, I have a different perspective because I can bring a scientific and the applied statistics perspective to it. It gives me a different perspective, and I like the fact that I can go across disciplines. I always tell my students that I had an interesting path that gave me the flexibility to do what I do today.
How did you get interested in science?
My dad was a psychiatrist, so that may be why I’ve always been interested in science. I started out in psychology because it was related to psychiatry. I never thought that I would be interested in basic science, because I liked interacting with people. But the more I got involved in it, the more I was interested in the science part and the concreteness of the results. In science, there are still no clear answers, but it felt like something I could put my hands around and really make a difference.
You mentioned your father was a psychiatrist and that may have influenced your interest in science. In what other ways have your early experiences shaped you?
When we came to the U.S., we were sponsored by a Baptist church, which got a lot of things for us to get here and get started. They helped us get clothes, and they helped my dad get into English language classes so he could go back to school to become a psychiatrist here. It feels full circle to come back and work at an institution like Campbell. And there is a special place in my heart about helping people and giving them a chance, because it was hard for my parents to start a whole new life in a different country.
What did you learn from your parents?
Hard work. To be able to start from scratch in a country where they had nothing and the sacrifices they made, I don’t know how my parents did it. I think one of the things I’m really grateful for is that my parents worked hard but they never felt anything was unfair. They’d say, “You do whatever you need to do to get to where you need to go.” I very much believe it’s not the number of setbacks or how long it takes you to get somewhere, it’s that you keep going that matters.
What do you hope students will learn from you that they can apply to their public health careers?
That it’s OK to fail and to keep trying. Public health is difficult work, but just because things don’t quite work out the way you hope, that doesn't mean you stop trying. I tell students, “I don’t worry about whether you have the biology background or if you haven’t written extensive papers. I worry about the students who aren’t willing to work.” Hard work goes a long way. Trying to make people healthy isn’t going to be a one-day thing. You slowly chip away at the problem. It takes persistence.
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Photos by Bennett Scarborough | Interview conducted by and edited by Cherry Crayton, Digital Content Coordinator