Alumni Profile: Russell Kirby, PhD, MS

Russell Kirby, USF Distinguished Professor and Marrell Endowed Chair

Undergraduate Studies Elmhurst College, 1972
BA, (Honors) University of Wisconsin, 1974
MS, Geography University of Wisconsin, 1977
PhD, Geography University of Wisconsin, 1981
MS, University of Wisconsin, 1991

Could you please tell us about your educational path and what led you to the Department of Geography at UW-Madison?

I can put the blame for my educational path partly on my mother’s shoulders. I graduated from high school in the winter of 1971, and my parents insisted I take some classes that spring in preparation for college full-time in 1971-72. My courses were somewhat limited, as I had to choose from introductory courses that were taught on specific days of the week. I chose courses in cultural anthropology and introduction to physical geography. By the end of the semester, I was hooked on majoring in geography. I then enrolled at Elmhurst College for 1971-72 and took several more geography courses along with other required classes. My parents decided, since I was going to major in geography, I should transfer to one of the top schools in the field. I applied to Wisconsin, was accepted, and you can say the rest is history. I matriculated in 1972, graduated with Honors in 1974, and went straight into graduate school.

Interestingly, as a mentor to students and trainees, I don’t often recommend that a student get all their training at a single institution. But in my case, of the geography professors with whom I studied as an undergraduate, I only took courses with or worked with one professor in my graduate studies, so it was almost like being at a different school for my graduate studies.

How did your experience receiving three degrees from the UW Geography Department shape your future career in public health? 

The training I received in the master’s and doctoral programs in the UW Geography Department was absolutely foundational for me. In addition to thorough exposure to the spatial perspective and geographic methods, I received first-rate training in social science methods and learned additional statistical techniques and computational methods. I prepared datasets and conducted statistical analyses for several professors as a graduate research assistant, gaining important practical experience I applied in the workplace.

But I didn’t have any plans to become a career public health professional as I was completing my dissertation in 1981. I was offered a position on a project at the Wisconsin state Center for Health Statistics because I was a geographer with experience working with data from the US postal system. I was tasked to apply a methodology to map the five-digit ZIP Code areas for the state of Wisconsin and develop population estimates by age and sex. Probably partly because I made myself useful within the agency, at the conclusion of the project I was offered another position, which ultimately led to me becoming the lead analyst for maternal and child health statistics. From there, the rest is history. I had to learn about maternal and child health from the inside out, but again, my knowledge of the social sciences, in particular demography, was especially useful.

I always advise those I mentor to never discount the serendipitous opportunities that may arise in one’s career. And looking back on my own path to the present, serendipity shaped my personal destiny in numerous ways!

Could you tell us about the intersection of these two disciplines: human geography and epidemiology?

Human geography and epidemiology are both similar in that they have no distinctive subject matter, rather they consist of theories, methods, and tools that can be applied almost universally. In the case of human geography, these theories, methods, and tools can be applied to everything related to the human experience and in the case of epidemiology to all forms of disease and health. Having high-level skills in both is fairly uncommon, but it enables the researcher with this dual training to view their research from a unique perspective. Comparatively few researchers or public health professionals have this dual training, and their expertise is often sought after.

Your population-based research focuses on birth defects and developmental disabilities epidemiology and prevention, as well as risk factors for adverse pregnancy outcomes. Could you briefly describe your most recent research project in this specialization? 

Most of my work in birth defects and developmental disabilities epidemiology and prevention focuses on risk factors associated with specific outcomes, or on factors involved in care-seeking behaviors and long-term outcomes for those living with these conditions. Every once in a while we do research that incorporates geography and spatial analysis into our study designs. We’ve been involved in several studies examining the association between maternal exposure to ambient air pollutants and birth defects, and also analysis of travel impedance to hospitals for families with children with specific birth defects, focusing primarily on spina bifida. More often we are asked to determine whether spatial co-occurrence of specific conditions is statistically meaningful.

What advice do you have for young geographers who are interested in entering the human geography field?

Learn as much about spatial analytic methods and geographic theory as you can. Don’t be afraid to learn about other fields on which the spatial perspective can be brought to bear, for example, spatial economics, historical geography, and especially demography.

We won’t ask you if you prefer living in Florida vs. Wisconsin… but, we do want to know if you have some favorite memories from your time here in the Badger State?

I have many memories, as I lived in Madison from 1972-1988, and in the Milwaukee area from 1996-2002 when I was faculty in the UW Medical School department of OBGYN at the Milwaukee Clinical Campus. Among others, there was the day that graduate students found a human foot in an old file cabinet on the 4th floor of Science Hall (dating back to the days when the Department of Anatomy was located in the building), and the day in 1979 when several of us made our final trips down the fire escape slide from the 4th floor to the parking lot before it was taken out of commission and removed. On summer afternoons, we would play Frisbee 500 on Bascom Hill, judging from the wind and drafts where best to catch the Frisbee thrown downhill (in those days one had to keep sense of one’s bearings, lest one fall off the several foot-high ledge onto the sidewalk at the bottom of the hill).

I also remember the ice storm in the winter of 1975-76, during which the University did not close, and I was one of three people who made it to class for an exam (one of the other two persons was the instructor), out of a class with about 100 students.

Another humorous incident occurred in Professor David Ward’s class, just before Easter weekend. A person came into the classroom during his lecture, wearing a floppy bunny costume, walked up to the professor, took the chalk out of his hand, wrote ‘Happy Ether’ on the board, threw candy in the air, and left. The professor was quite bewildered, but after a minute or two was able to proceed with his lecture.

Author: egoldman2