Beth A. Virnig, Ph.D., M.P.H., is the dean and Robert G. Frank Endowed Professor at the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions. She joined the university in July 2022 as the sixth dean of the college in its 64-year history.
She served as a professor in the division of health policy and management at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and as director and lead of the school’s Strategic Global Public Health Programming, where she guided efforts with partner universities in Thailand, India, Mexico and Ghana. Prior to that, she served as the school’s senior associate dean for academic affairs and research.
Virnig’s research examines how patient factors and system factors combine to influence care and outcomes. Her research focuses on cancer care, women’s health, end-of-life care, and the measurement of racial and ethnic disparities in care and health outcomes among Medicare beneficiaries. Her work has been funded by the National Cancer Institute, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. She serves on the American Cancer Society’s Council for Extramural Research. She is the author or co-author of more than 200 peer-reviewed articles, including an article on breast cancer surgery that was named one of the 10 best papers of the decade (1999-2009) by the American Society of Breast Surgeons.
She directed the Research Data Assistance Center, or ResDAC, a Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services-funded program providing free assistance to academic, government and nonprofit researchers interested in using Medicare and Medicaid data in their work.
She earned both her Ph.D. and M.P.H. in epidemiology from the University of Minnesota. Prior to joining the University of Minnesota, Virnig held positions at the University of Miami and Dartmouth Medical School’s Center for Evaluative Clinical Sciences.
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 Carlton 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.’
Around the same time, my parents asked if I had thought about getting a job after graduation. I explained that I really liked research, but wasn’t interested in studying laboratory animal behavior. My mother asked what I wanted to study and I said, ‘I don’t know. Who lives and who dies.’ She said, ‘That’s called epidemiology.’ And I thought, ‘OK, that’s what I want to do.’
From there, 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?’
I really wanted to do something more about the why and not accept these patterns as interesting. I wanted to make them change, so that’s how I ended up studying health care and policy.
What are your scholarly interests?
There are two parts of my scholarly interests and one of them is I like ideas. I like the challenge of figuring something out. So 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 more and more, it’s about how can we change these patterns? What is it that 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 asked questions and 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 one 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 that came with the opportunities. So it would be a lift, but it would be a fun challenge versus an exercise in frustration.
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. I don’t think the rankings are fair, but I think that’s a little bit on us. 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. I would also like for 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. The last time we went, which was December 2019-January 2020, one of the things my family and I did was take a cooking class to learn how to make pasta.
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.