"I feel like we’ve grown up together," Dr. Jason Coleman jokes in his slight South Carolinian drawl, explaining his transformative professional experience over the last eight years at UNO. "Even though I’m relatively new to Omaha, I feel like I’ve grown up alongside UNO.
"I have a strong research background, and I’ve seen UNO move toward a culture of innovation. I’ve also seen the impact we have as faculty and as an institution—how deep we reach out into the community, the good we do."
Dr. Coleman doesn’t shy away from distinctive projects or innovative ideas. Arriving at UNO in 2010 as Assistant Professor of Public Health, Dr. Coleman dug right into groundbreaking research with colleagues from UNMC and UNO Associate Professor of Sociology Dr. Jay Irwin. They formed a working group that would eventually be known as the Midland Sexual Health Research Collaborative (MSHRC).
Sensing a need for advocacy, the MSHRC conducted the Midlands LGBT Needs Assessment, a research study gauging the physical, mental, social, and sexual health of LGBT persons in Nebraska. The health of LGBT Nebraskans had never before been studied, and data showed health disparities and barriers to health care access. Additional data from the assessment, indicating that employment discrimination towards LGBT workers exists in Omaha, informed an amendment passed by the city council in 2012 to expand Omaha’s anti-discrimination laws.
Dr. Coleman became director of the MSHRC in 2014. Along with fellow co-director, Dr. Sofia Jawed-Wessel, colleagues Dr. Irwin, Dr. Aja Kneip Pelster, Liam Heerten-Rodriguez, and public health students, the MSHRC continues to provide contemporary, evidence-based research to inform policy for critical projects involving teen pregnancy; HIV and STI prevention; maternal and child health; comprehensive sexuality education; and issues of health access.
"The MSHRC recognizes that it is important work to improve the lives of people in the community and to take a structural approach to public health. We conduct research to identify gaps at the systems level, and we work to develop evidence-based tools to share with policymakers and community partners," explains Dr. Coleman.
The power of collaboration, community engagement, and building strong health infrastructure was taught to Dr. Coleman early in his career. After graduating with an undergraduate degree in international studies, he spent over two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia, for the Community Action for Health program.
"My academic focus was on social justice and equity in the developing world. On the ground in Zambia, I learned that public health is the heart of everything to achieve those goals. I was trained to go into communities with basic health infrastructure and build capacity.
"I worked with community members to determine gaps or needs and then worked to find locally-based solutions and develop programs by working alongside government workers and helping connect them with local organizations. I saw a real impact of this work on the health of the community."
Dr. Coleman returned to South Carolina with a passion for the field. He graduated from the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health with master’s and doctoral degrees in Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior.
As director, he will build on the strength of the H&K faculty and programs. "I work with wonderful faculty with so many diverse talents. They represent the best in all three pillars of academia: teaching, research, and service. Funders know we do rigorous, necessary, and innovative research. Students know they are getting a quality education. We will move forward as an engaged school, building on the expertise of our faculty, with students as our research partners."