“I thought I wanted to be a country doctor and carry my own black bag, but I was open to other possibilities.”

Last spring, Dr. Paul Erwin was appointed Dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, but his journey to that position, like many others in public health, wasn’t a straight, taut line. Rather, it wound its way like a river, slowing and turning at points too narrow to pass to forge new channels, picking up swiftly in open spaces, and meandering back around, quite poetically, to its place of origin. He could have taken a shorter route, a direct path to a successful career in medicine, and he almost did. His father was a country doctor, who carried a black bag and made house calls in rural Alabama, a worthy vocation in the eyes of young Erwin, who was inspired to follow in his footsteps. But once he started medical school himself, he soon realized the business aspects of private practice were uninspiring, and as he says, “not a viable option.” Talking with him, listening to his soft-spoken, carefully chosen words, it’s clear that he genuinely wanted to help people, and he didn’t mind going out of his way to do it. The opportunity to do something that truly inspired him presented itself during his last semester in med school when he came upon information that the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health was sponsoring a medical expedition to Nepal. He signed on to participate in a health survey of the Arrun River Valley. And that, he says, is where his life’s path changed:

“That’s where I became exposed to the whole notion of public health, the health of populations, and the factors that really influence whether or not a community has the capacity to be healthy.”

It was there in Nepal where he made the connection that social determinants of health (education, income, employment, housing) are factors that have a strong influence on community wellness. He also developed a relationship with Dr. Jack Bryant, international health expert, a figure who would become one of many lifelong mentors to help guide him. Despite Erwin’s previous misgivings, Bryant encouraged him to complete his clinical training as a foundation for a career in public health. Following med school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Erwin completed an internship and residency in internal medicine at the University of Virginia Affiliated Hospitals, and then he went on to complete his MPH with a concentration in international health at Johns Hopkins. During that time, he reconnected with Bryant, who was then at the Aga Khan University in Pakistan. Erwin joined his mentor to work on a two-year fellowship to help develop primary care for the squatter settlements in Karachi. That experience piqued his interest in governmental health services, so upon his return to the US, Erwin took a position at the Tennessee Department of Health where he would come to oversee 15 county health departments in rural Appalachia for the next 16 years.

“That’s where I really learned public health,” he says. “I found the same cycles of illness and absence of capacity for good health, and lack of education, poverty, and low employment that I saw in Nepal.”

After years of working in public health practice, Erwin’s career interests began to shift again, this time toward academia, in part due to an adjunct position he’d taken at the accredited program of public health at the University of Tennessee. He felt he needed firsthand experience of the dissertation process, so he immersed himself in the DrPH program at UNC-Chapel Hill, and upon participating in an executive program, came into his next position, at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville where he would establish the Center for Public Health, and then later the Department of Public Health.

Returning last spring to the University of Alabama at Birmingham brings his career — spanning practice, research, and academia — full circle, a journey that has given him the unique perspective of seeing (and cultivating) their mutually beneficial points of intersection. During his tenure at UAB, he hopes to strengthen the connections between practice and academia that have already been established between the university and local and state health departments so that the exchange is valuable for all involved: each practice, the workforce, UAB faculty and students, and ultimately for the communities they all serve. Service to communities is important to Erwin.

“I bring a strong sense of the institution’s obligations to the communities in which we’re located, the obligation that we have to serve our community, to bring our expertise to bear on the challenges and issues and problems that our communities face. I want this school to be fully engaged in that.”

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