The director of the New River Health District, Noelle Bissell, will be the commencement speaker for the 2022 graduating class of Bachelor of Science in public health students. The ceremony is Wednesday, May 11, at 7 p.m. in Lane Stadium.

The bachelor's degree, part of the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine’s public health program, prepares graduates to work in the public health fields and address public health problems such as infectious and chronic diseases, high-risk lifestyles, and health disparities. The program emphasizes One Health, an approach that reinforces that human health, animal health, and the environment are all connected. 

Since 2017, Bissell has been the director of the New River Health District, which encompasses the counties of Floyd, Pulaski, Montgomery and Giles, as well as the city of Radford in Southwest Virginia. She is leading the district’s COVID-19 response efforts as part of the New River Valley Public Health Task Force.

Bissell oversees public health services in the region, including environmental health, nursing, epidemiology surveillance, investigations of communicable diseases, emergency preparedness and response, and population health outreach/education. 

“I am very excited and honored to be the commencement speaker, especially as this is the inaugural graduating class of public health students. This is a great time to be coming into public health, with many exciting opportunities. But students need to realize that this is a challenging career,” said Bissell.

“This is a pivotal time for public health. We need to learn from what went well and what didn’t go so well with COVID-19. It put a spotlight on our health capabilities and infrastructure. But the core task of getting the right care and services to those that need it the most, to those that are underserved, remains.”

Public health services actively promote policies, systems, and overall community conditions that enable optimal health for all and seek to remove systemic and structural barriers that have resulted in health inequities.

A public health degree provides graduates with a variety of employment opportunities, including health care settings, nonprofit organizations, public health departments, and other government agencies, while public health graduates with training in fields such as biostatistics, epidemiology and environmental health often obtain research or policy positions in government agencies, research institutions, private industry, and academic settings.

“Students need to realize that this is a challenging career. We need to meet our clients where they are, and we must go out to them and work within the constraints we find in that environment. They will need to embrace uncertainty. The uncertainty that comes from working with people, who often have priorities and demands other than just health, and they may or may not do what you want them to do. And then there is the uncertainty of limited resources,” said Bissell.

“We have so much to do in public health. These students made a great career investment decision four years ago, pre-pandemic, in starting on a public health pathway. They are now well placed to make an impact and have an opportunity to grow their careers in many different ways,” said Bissell.

Bissell was born and raised in the Baltimore area. She received her bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Johns Hopkins University and her M.D. from the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Board-certified in internal medicine, she served four years in the U.S. Navy as a flight surgeon. Before public health, Bissell practiced inpatient and outpatient medicine and college health. Bissell and her family have lived in the New River Valley for 17 years and reside in Blacksburg.

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