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Dr. Ulysses Labilles: The Drive and Passion Behind Earning a PhD in Public Health

A devotion to family, community health, and social change helps fuel this epidemiologist’s career.

As his brother Rey was dying of pancreatic cancer in 2007, Dr. Ulysses Labilles heard a plea that would shape his future.

“A night before my youngest brother passed away, he said, ‘Promise me that you will go back to school, and someday take on a research project that could make a difference to individuals diagnosed with this very painful disease.’ He passed away … a few weeks before his 40th birthday, and three months before the first birthday of his only daughter. In December 2012, as a promise to my brother, I enrolled in the public health PhD program specializing in epidemiology.”

Dr. Labilles graduated from Walden University’s PhD in Public Health online degree program in 2017, his promise to his brother fulfilled in the dissertation “Pathopoiesis Mechanism of Smoking and Shared Genes in Pancreatic Cancer.” He dedicated the scholarly work to Rey.

“When a sad or tragic event happens, we have three choices. We can let this event define us, let it destroy us, or let it strengthen us,” Dr. Labilles wrote in the 2017 dedication. “For somebody who is over 50 years old like me, going back to school is sometimes misconstrued as a dream too high to reach. To be given an equal chance to have a better education is not about a sense of pride, but about making a difference for others who have nothing but hope. The courage to face any obstacles is an important component of positive social change.”

Today, Dr. Labilles is combining his drive, passion, and commitment to social change to confront and help vanquish another deadly foe: COVID-19. Working for the CDC Foundation, the public health professional and epidemiologist leads the Navajo Nation Unified COVID-19 Community of Practice forum and is a co-leader of the tribe’s testing strategy, data and analytics, and vaccination data teams.

“The Navajo Nation was hit very badly during the initial waves,” Dr. Labilles said. “I learned a lot about the challenges they face, including how the population is usually ignored and is often one of the last groups to get federal help.”

The Navajo Nation, which stretches across portions of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, had the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rate in the United States in May 2020.1 By June 30, 2021, nearly 65% of the Navajo Nation population 12 and older was fully vaccinated.2

Still, leaders and public health professionals continue to urge caution: “Keep listening to the advice of our public health experts and continue to take precautions, especially in public. We know how to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and it depends on our personal choices and actions,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in October 2021.3

“While vaccination is rolled out already, testing and contact tracing still play a vital role in the Navajo Nation until we reach the herd immunity threshold,” Dr. Labilles said in a CDC Foundation article.4

Dr. Labilles, who is based in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, is taking his public health epidemiology expertise further still. He’s working on genomic characterization and viral sequencing to track COVID-19 strains and variants and studying the long-term effects of COVID-19 in an Indian Health Service initiative.

“Walden’s mission for social change plays a big role in what I’m doing now,” Dr. Labilles said. “All of us have a story to share, and I thought mine was about earning a doctoral degree and finishing graduate school ahead of schedule. I now know my story is to help end the pandemic.”

Bring Your Passion to Public Health

Earning a PhD in Public Health can help you find your own life-changing role as a public health professional. In Walden’s online public health PhD degree program, you have your choice of specializations in Community Health, Environmental and Occupational Health, and Epidemiology.

As a PhD candidate, you’ll learn from a global corps of scholars, researchers, and leaders chosen for their public health expertise. You’ll address today’s vital public health issues in scholarly research that will culminate in a dissertation informed by Walden’s mission of social change. And because Walden offers this advanced degree program in an online format, you’ll have the flexibility to work full time in your career while furthering your education.

As a graduate of this public health PhD program, you may find your calling as a researcher, consultant, epidemiologist, health educator, or environmental and occupational health leader. Or perhaps you want to focus your career on population health, toxicology, industrial hygiene, or developing health policy.

And like Dr. Labilles, you may choose to work on the front lines, in communities across the globe, addressing today’s most urgent public health issues.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering a PhD in Public Health online degree program. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.


Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,