Public Health Research

Inside the mind of researcher Steph Bernell

“Right now, I am interested in exploring the unintended consequences of policies that at first glance might not be viewed as public health policy. My current research links agriculture and forest policy to mental and physical health,” says CPHHS associate professor Steph Bernell.


Steph Bernell came to the College of Public Health and Human Sciences in 2001 as an assistant professor. In 2004, she earned the title of track coordinator of the Health Management and Policy Programs, and in 2007 was promoted to associate professor with tenure. Prior to Oregon State, she worked as an adjunct faculty member at George Washington University in the School of Public Health. She earned a master’s degree in Economics from American University, College of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C., and a PhD in Health Economics from Johns Hopkins University, Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Md.

What made you decide to get into this field of study? Is there one specific moment that inspired your career path?

“In the late 1980s, I was living in Washington, D.C., in an area that was hard hit by HIV. It was a challenging time in our nation’s history. The personal, social and political aspects of the crisis were large. In time, I came to realize that I could use my training in economics to better understand issues that I felt passionate about.”

What does your current research entail?

“Rather than focus on one particular subject, I use my economics training to look at a wide range of topics. Right now, I am interested in exploring the unintended consequences of policies that at first glance might not be viewed as public health policy. My current research links agriculture and forest policy to mental and physical health.”

CPHHS Associate Professor Steph Bernell.
CPHHS Associate Professor Steph Bernell.

What sparked your interest in this topic?

“On a trip last summer, I started to think about all the small towns that are peppered throughout Oregon and wondered what life was like in these town two, three or four decades ago. What has changed? After doing a lot of reading, I started to think that one thread that binds many of these towns together is the reliance on the land to generate income. When income falls, there are health consequences.”

How will this make a difference?

“It’s important for policymakers to fully grasp the public health effects of all policies, regardless of the policy’s primary purpose. Understanding these effects can provide a fuller picture of what can be anticipated down the road.”

What would you say is the most fascinating aspect of this research?

“I am extremely lucky because when new policies are put into action, my mind starts to spin with new research ideas. I am always learning something new!”

Are you working with anyone else in the CPHHS on this project?

“I have been working with undergraduate and graduate students in the CPHHS on the forest policy project. They have been fantastic partners! Getting students to think beyond their immediate world is incredibly valuable.”

Why is research important in the field of public health?

“Public health is not one specific field. It consists of an array of interconnected parts – much like a jigsaw puzzle. Research allows us to understand how the puzzle pieces fit together. With a complete picture, we can improve the population’s health and avoid putting the proverbially square peg in a round hole.”

What is the best advice you’ve ever received, and who gave it?

“This isn’t advice, but something I learned from my grandmother. She would look me in the eye and thank me for whatever I was doing to help her out. Looking people in the eye and expressing appreciation for their hard work – even if things don’t go as planned – can go a long way.”

What advice would you give to current students and recent alums?

“I have two pieces of advice that I would give current students. First, make reading a newspaper – even the sections you want to skip – a daily habit. The knowledge you acquire will come in handy in ways you can’t imagine. Second, instead of turning to the computer to search for answers to your questions, sit back and think through whatever issue you want to know more about. Take notes and try to connect dots yourself. To recent alums, think about the how to use the tools you have acquired at OSU to work on problems you have not been directly exposed to. Reframing your skillset will open up new possibilities.”

What are your favorite activities outside of work?

“Outside of work, you can find me playing baseball or basketball with my boys or talking politics with my husband. If the stars are aligned, I can steal a few quiet moments each day to paint in my home studio.”