Dr. David Buys is the president of the Mississippi Public Health Association and a faculty member at Mississippi State University (MSU), where he teaches in the classroom and in the field for the MSU Extension Service. LeadingPublicHealth.org Alumni Editor and Mississippi native, Dr. Mary Wesley interviewed Dr. Buys in the Fall of 2018 to learn about his leadership journey and plans for leading public health change in Mississippi. Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
MARY: How did you get involved in public health?
BUYS: Public Health is really a calling … once you come to it, you stay in it. [I wanted to] serve and meet the needs of people in the community. Being from Mississippi and being able to serve and work in my home state means the world to me. I had a sense that this is where I am supposed to be, and [this is] what I am supposed to be doing. I’ve had several twists and turns, from undergraduate [to] graduate training. I still have questions about inequities [and] health disparities. The public health side is not [just about] why there are differences, but [also asking], “what can we do about it?” Public health demands more of people … we don’t just stop with data, we move to action. To use a thought from my epidemiological training- data is “necessary but not sufficient” to drive change.
MARY: Why did you choose to purse your current leadership role in public health?
BUYS: It’s a natural progression. I wanted to make things better. When I have hit roadblocks, leaders at the next level have helped me move through them; [and] this made me want to move to the next level- to help get the roadblocks out of the way. I’m still learning about how things work [and] I see myself transitioning into a leader [helping implement] the efforts that I am leading.
MARY: What are you most excited about for your new role as MPHA president?
BUYS: Public health is the ultimate team sport. People who are most successful embrace that team aspect of our work... they have to feel it. One of the things I am excited about is the ability to convene meetings and gatherings, bring people together that will be working on different aspects of projects, and help [advance the] public health infrastructure along [the way] for our state.
MARY: What have you learned so far about leading and enabling change in public health and about yourself in your leadership journey along the way?
BUYS: [You must] fight the imposter syndrome. In public health, you have a wide range of responsibilities [and] it’s easy to let that get to your head and say you’re not as smart as you think you are…it’s okay to admit you are wrong, admit when you have failed and to be okay knowing that you are going to make mistakes. Be willing to admit [your] mistakes. [You] have to work [through the] tension between wanting to have a real narrow level of expertise and [needing] to be a generalist [to] respond to the need of the population you are serving. Back to the imposter syndrome— that is the self-doubt that we all face—the idea that we are just playing the part and misrepresenting our expertise. That is common among many professionals, and fighting that is essential!
MARY: What advice would you give to current students in defining the next steps for their careers?
BUYS: Don’t limit yourself in thinking about traditional avenues in public health…be open to all kind of possibilities and [be] willing to wrestle with the tension between realizing your goals and refining your goals. Course correction doesn’t mean failure. It’s okay. Be open to what comes but don’t lose your public health perspective and that lens that you now have for viewing the world and affecting change.
David R. Buys, PhD, MSPH, CPH is the president of the Mississippi Public Health Association. He serves as State Health Specialist for the Mississippi State University Extension Service, a researcher in the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Experiment Station, and an Assistant Extension and Research Professor in the Department of Food Science, Nutrition, and Health Promotion. As State Health Specialist for the Extension Service, Dr. Buys delivers community-based health education and health promotion and provides research-based health-related resources to Extension Agents in each of Mississippi’s 82 Counties with a particular focus on the creating healthy home environments and on prevention and management of chronic diseases. He directs the Extension Healthy Homes Initiative, the goal of which is to equip Mississippians with the knowledge they need to keep their indoor environments safe and healthy. The Initiative reaches individuals from across the lifespan and socio-economic spectrum. As a researcher, he examines how food security and nutritional status affects older adults’ health-related outcomes. Dr. Buys maintains an adjunct appointment in the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine’s Division of Gerontology, Geriatrics, and Palliative Medicine where he previously served on faculty. He is associate director of the Myrlie-Evers Williams Institute for the Elimination of Health Disparities based at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. He earned a PhD in medical sociology, a MSPH in epidemiology and completed an AHRQ-funded postdoctoral fellowship in health services and outcomes research at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He also completed a master of science degree in sociology at Auburn University and a bachelor of science (cum laude) in sociology at Mississippi College. He is Certified in Public Health by the National Board of Public Health Examiners.
Dr. Mary Wesley has over a decade of experience at academic institutions, clinical organizations, and government agencies with an interest in maternal and child health (MCH) epidemiology and a special focus on minority health and health disparities. Dr. Wesley completed her undergraduate degree at Prairie View A&M University, her Masters in Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and her Doctor of Public Health at Harvard University.