Get to Know Center Faculty: Dr. Andrew Springer
Published: June 10, 2022
Dr. Andrew Springer is an associate professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences at the UTHealth School of Public Health in Austin and a member of the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living. He has over 20 years of experience in designing, implementing, and evaluating child and adolescent health promotion programs. His research focuses on child and adolescent health promotion with a specific interest in social-ecological influences on health behavior in young people and participatory community health planning and evaluation methods.
Past research projects include the implementation and evaluation of CATCH Middle School, Marathon Kids, and the Stronger Austin Initiative. He also developed and tested low-cost strategies to promote elementary school children’s physical activity during recess and structured activity break time in Austin, Texas, and Pueblo, Colorado.
His more recent work includes the community coalition-guided Youth-led Community Health Learning Initiative, which engaged young people in assessing needs and identifying place-based solutions. This work led to his current role as the Principal Investigator of Evaluation for the Del Valle Healthy Adolescent Project, a community partner-led project that enhances the ecosystem of support for adolescent health promotion.
Dr. Springer embraces an active community health praxis by serving as co-chair of the Community Collaborative for Child Health and on other community health boards, including the Austin/Travis Community Health Improvement Plan, Children’s Optimal Health, and Ascencion Texas Community Health Assessment. His previous public health involvement includes the rural-based health promotion projects in Latin America via Amigos de las Americas, Save the Children-El Salvador, and Guatemala's United Nations Development Program.
Dr. Springer took the time to answer a few questions we had for him about his experiences in public health and his interests:
1. How did your interest in public health begin?
I began my public health journey as a high school volunteer with a dental hygiene promotion project in rural Cajamarca, Peru, with the nonprofit organization, Amigos de las Americas in 1984. Through that experience, I developed a love for Latin America, community health, and the power of collective action. Years later, while working with the same organization, I led an evaluation of a latrine project in Guanajuato, Mexico. Thanks to that experience, I developed a greater interest in program evaluation and quickly realized I needed more formal training in public health. I began my graduate school studies at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston in the mid-1990s in the “Family and International Health” module, with excellent guidance provided by my esteemed mentor, Dr. George Kerr.
2. What path has your research taken?
I began my career with interest in diarrheal disease prevention among children, which was the focus of my MPH thesis. Working in rural Mexico with the Secretaria de Salud, we found that many communities did not have full latrine coverage, except for one with almost full coverage. We learned that this outlier was due to the community's collective action and a ‘community agreement,’ similar to a policy created by the community council. Building from that experience, I developed a strong interest in community-engaged research, practice, and how settings and environments (e.g., the information, social, policy, and built environments) can shape health and health behaviors.
My current research has focused primarily on child and adolescent health promotion, including obesity prevention, physical activity promotion, and risk behavior prevention in young people. I have developed a strong interest in and value community-engaged research and community health promotion practice methods through my intervention research and community-based health promotion practice efforts.
3. In your opinion, what are the most significant public health problems in your field of research?
2021 Michael & Susan Dell Center Lectureship in Child Health keynote speaker, Dr. Tony Iton’s insightful statement “your zip code is more important than your genetic code” applies to both public health in general and to child and adolescent health promotion, where young people are confronted with unequal opportunities for their healthy development and quality of life. In my area of community health promotion, we need to move beyond individual-level theories to community-level theories to understand and guide our efforts to address societal barriers and opportunities for the healthy development of young people. We also need to grow our toolbox of both research methods and practice-based community health improvement methods to develop a science and practice not just of individual-level change but also environmental-level change.
4. Do you have a favorite research project that you’ve worked on, or one that stands out?
I’m very interested in the health design concept of interweaving health promotion into context, defined as weaving or blending health promotion strategies, practices, programs, and policies to fit within, complement, and build from existing settings and environments. This is a common practice for health promotion practitioners but one that merits further intentionality for our field of health promotion.
Recently, I published a paper with community partners on our work with Stronger Austin. Free adult fitness classes such as Zumba were ‘interwoven’ into public settings with widespread community reach, including community clinics, libraries, parks, recreation centers, and public schools. Beyond the benefits for fitness, this mixed-methods study also found these classes to be beneficial for creating a sense of belonging and positive interpersonal connectedness.
5. What do you like most about working with students and our future public health workforce?
Working with students is one aspect of my job that I value most. I continue to learn with every cohort of students and embrace a philosophy of teacher as student, student as teacher, and students and teachers as co-learners. I enjoy seeing students excel when they have a safe and supportive learning space to develop their own agency for public health research and practice.
Click here to learn more about Dr. Springer and his impactful work.