On the first day of class in the Honors College section of Introduction to Public Health, Viktor Bovbjerg sends students out of the classroom to wander the halls of the Learning Innovation Center with their smart phones in hand. Their mission: Find evidence of public health. Students photograph what they see—a sign for an automated external defibrillator (AED), restroom pictograms, and exit signs—and return to class to share the results.
According to Bovbjerg, the first day sets the tone for the term: “This exercise creates the expectation that students will engage the real world in the class. They will be encountering public health in the world,” he said. He notes that Honors College students are eager to engage in research and hands-on learning in his course: “This is one of the advantages of teaching in the Honors College —students select themselves to join the class, and they’re actively engaged in their learning.”
In recognition of his dedication to mentoring students, last year Bovbjerg was named the first Honors College Eminent Mentor. He began mentoring students and teaching in the Honors College shortly after he joined Oregon State in 2009.
Bovbjerg is an Associate Professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences. His interests as a scholar and teacher lie in the intersection of humans and their multifaceted environments—natural, built, cultural, and social. “I have specific interests in occupational exposures and injury control, particularly in high-risk settings,” he said. Other research interests include promoting the role of health care services in public health; translating research into public health practice; and integrating epidemiology and ecology in both research and teaching.
Prior to joining Oregon State, he obtained his doctorate in epidemiology from the University of Washington and taught at Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Virginia, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In his work with honors students, the level of engagement and dedication that they display always impresses him. “My biggest role as a mentor is the ability to get out of students’ way,” he said. “HC students come to me with enthusiasm, and a sense of purpose. They are inquisitive and curious about the world. That’s one of the greatest joys in being an HC mentor—I don’t need to provide that sense of engagement. You can’t provide a spark for people; they have to bring that with them. I can provide fuel for the spark.”
Students seek out Bovbjerg’s mentorship because of his passion for public health and his dedication to teaching. This was a draw for Elizabeth Moore, whose 2016 Honors College thesis, “Implications of Lymph Node Involvement in Breast Cancer Patients,” grew from Bovbjerg’s research. “I took a class from Dr. Bovbjerg as a freshman and was immediately impressed by his ability to engage students in the material,” she said.
Moore later met with Bovbjerg to discuss his research. “We had a great discussion about both of our interests,” she recalled. “After telling him about my plans to apply to medical school, he told me about a project he was completing in collaboration with a central Oregon cancer center. I was ecstatic to become a part of an important project that was also aligned with my own goals.” Moore is currently studying for the MCAT and preparing to apply to medical school.
Bovbjerg stresses the importance of giving students access to research opportunities. “I think of myself as providing tools and skills and approaches that students don’t bring with them. They come with passion and purpose and often are ready to tackle a topic or problem that they care about. So when they work with me, we work on the tools to push that purpose forward,” he said.
Bovbjerg’s mentorship extends beyond the classroom and thesis process. Alyssa Rollins, a 2016 Honors College graduate and mentee of Bovbjerg’s, is thankful for his continued support. “The best part of working with Dr. Bovbjerg has been gaining a mentor long past my thesis process,” she said. “He was always supportive of my experiences in and out of school, and has continued to support me through graduate school applications and job searches post-graduation.” Rollins is now an Alumni Relations Coordinator for Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, CA and is currently weighing two graduate school admission offers to pursue a Masters of Education (MEd) in Higher Education Administration.
The Honors College Eminent Mentor Award was created in 2015 with funds from the Margaret and Thomas Meehan Honors Professorship Fund. Established through an estate gift from Margaret Meehan, the longtime director of the honors program that proceeded the establishment of the Honors College in 1995, the fund supports outstanding and innovative teaching and mentorship in the college. Margaret Meehan was a faculty member in the Department of History and built the honors program during her tenure as director from 1974-1986. Thomas Meehan, who passed away in 2006, was a member of the Oregon State history faculty much recognized for his teaching and commitment to students.
According to his students, Bovbjerg’s dedication to honors education and mentorship makes him a worthy heir to the Meehans’ legacy. “Throughout writing, defending, and completing my thesis,” Elizabeth Moore recalls, “Dr. Bovbjerg was incredibly supportive of my interests and goals. He truly cares about his students and our community. This made research and writing fun—and I learned more than I ever could have imagined.”