As the new Department Chair, Dr. Kacey Ernst brings deep experience in applied epidemiology, research, and education, alongside an extensive track record of cross-disciplinary collaboration to her leadership of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics for the college.
After a national search, the college is excited to welcome Kacey Ernst, PhD, MPH, as the new Department Chair to lead the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics (Epi/Bio)! Dr. Ernst brings deep experience in applied epidemiology, research, and education, alongside an extensive track record of cross-disciplinary collaboration to her leadership role.
Dr. Ernst joined the faculty in Epi/Bio in 2008 as an infectious disease epidemiologist. Her research primarily focuses on how humans, their environment and their interactions shape the risk of vector-borne and zoonotic diseases. She has worked on projects throughout the globe, including in western Kenya, Indonesia, Ghana, and Mexico to understand the dynamics of dengue and malaria. Her work is highly collaborative as she believes it is critical to bring multiple disciplines together to tackle the challenges we face in a changing climate. Her personal research also seeks to engage communities in prevention and control by leveraging widely available and novel technologies.
I’m privileged to lead such a talented team of faculty and staff in the Epi Bio department… I look forward to working with my colleagues and everyone in the college and broader university. Together we’ll find new ways to support the communities we serve.
Kacey Ernst, PhD, MPH
“I’m privileged to lead such a talented team of faculty and staff in the Epi Bio department,” says Dr. Ernst, “Our nation and our world have so many health challenges that need solutions, especially with the impacts of climate change. Public health must lead the way. I’m also very grateful to the leadership of Dr. Zhao Chen who guided the department before me. I look forward to working with my colleagues and everyone in the college and broader university. Together we’ll find new ways to support the communities we serve.”
As the new Department Chair, Dr. Ernst will first and foremost support her colleagues to make sure they have the resources and guidance they need for their courses, research, and service projects. She is highly committed to diversity and inclusion efforts within the department, having been one of the former co-chairs of the Committee on Inclusion and Equity and will seek to develop a welcoming climate for all.
Further, Dr. Ernst aims to build more collaborations within the department, health sciences and the broader university to take advantage of emerging technologies, informatics, and artificial Intelligence (AI) to advance research and programs in Epi Bio in order to build on the department’s strength in epidemiological and biostatistical methods and data science. Adapting to new technologies will also help the department train students to participate in the next generation of the public health workforce. Dr. Ernst will expand departmental collaboration with public health agencies and community organizations to understand and meet the emerging needs in public health practice.
Dr. Ernst collaborates across campus with projects and programs that are seeking to respond to a rapidly changing world; recognizing that the health of people is inextricably linked with that of the environment, plants, and animals. Loss of biodiversity has downstream impacts on human health through pathogen transmission and impacts on food security. Dr. Ernst serves as Co-Director of the Bridging Biodiversity & Conservation Science (BBCS) program with Dr. Brian Enquist from Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, which is part of the Arizona Institute for Resilience (AIR). The BBCS trains post-doctoral scientists in transdisciplinary research to forecast, prevent and respond to biodiversity loss and its impacts on human well-being. Within Health Sciences she serves on the One Health Advisory Committee for the One Health Initiative, led by Dr. Frank Von Hippel, which has a similar mission to build UArizona capacity to integrate research across human, animal and environmental domains to better respond to health threats.
As widely recognized during the COVID-19 pandemic, infectious diseases remain a significant component of these threats. Dr. Ernst works with the Aegis Consortium, led by Dr. Janko Nikolich- Ẑugich, at University of Arizona Health Sciences where she is a co-leader for Pillar 1, Pandemics Control, Prediction and Preparedness, in partnership with Dr. Felicia Goodrun.
To better respond to pandemics, communication to the public is essential. Dr. Ernst works with the Arizona Center for Rural Health, to support the AZHEALTHTXT platform, a bilingual text-based information-sharing service that delivers timely, expert-curated, health information tailored to the unique needs of Arizonans, especially rural residents who have less access to health services. During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Ernst collaborated with other experts, including Nirav Merchant, Dr. Sriram Iyengar, and Dr. Steve Rains, around the UArizona to develop the AZCOVIDTXT platform that was designed to keep Arizonans informed about the most up-to-date science and prevention knowledge related to the virus. That pioneering platform has now evolved into AZHEALTHTXT to serve rural Arizonans with pertinent health information.
To educate the next generation of students in the use of ‘health informatics,’ Dr. Ernst serves as co-Director of the PHIRE program (Place-based Health Informatics Research Education) in collaboration with Dr. Vignesh Subbian from the College of Engineering. Funded by the National Library of Medicine in the National Institutes of Health, the PHIRE program provides funding and training for graduate students interested in biomedical research and health informatics.
Partnerships Outside the University
Related to her other work on climate change and health, Dr. Ernst is one of the authors on the National Climate Assessment report produced by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) that will be published this year and recently helped organize an AGU Chapman conference on climate change early warning systems in Africa.
In the realm of digital epidemiology, Dr. Ernst has worked on several initiatives, including development of a mosquito-borne disease surveillance app Kidenga, and with the developers of the Wehealth app that anonymously notified users if they have been near someone who reported having COVID-19. Originally deployed when the University of Arizona reopened in Fall 2021, the Wehealth app was developed collaboratively with input from a range of UArizona experts, including epidemiologists, who worked together with the team from WeHealth, headed by Sameer Halai, to produce the app. WeHealth is a Public Benefit Corporation. With the turndown of exposure notifications from Apple and Google, the app is pivoting towards an all-hazards approach to provide timely information on emerging issues.
A Promising Future for Epi/Bio
“We are all very pleased to have Dr. Ernst in this new leadership role,” said Iman Hakim, MD, PhD, MPH, dean of the Zuckerman College of Public Health. “Epi Bio is already a very strong department with excellent teaching, outstanding research, and impactful service projects. Dr. Ernst's emphasis on collaboration and inclusion, and her expertise in digital epidemiology, will guide them to meet our future health challenges using the newest technological tools.”