Rutgers Today Spotlight: Lisa Harrison-Gulla

May 10, 2024

From Rutgers Today

Public Health Career Inspired By Family Legacy and Personal Challenges

Lisa Harrison-Gulla began her public health career 30 years ago helping those suffering from addiction in their treatment and recovery. Now, she’s using her experience – along with a new doctoral degree from Rutgers – to help shape policy supporting the public health workforce.

Harrison-Gulla’s journey is rooted in family legacy – her grandfather, Herman Weiss, one of the first physical therapists in the country – and shaped by personal experiences and challenges.

“Initially, my career focus was on addressing addiction through one-on-one treatment,” she said. “My initial decision to specialize in addictions was influenced by my father’s addiction and death when I was 16.”

Harrison-Gulla went on to study psychology, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree from Montclair State University and a master’s in education for counseling psychology from Seton Hall University.

“My journey took me from treatment to prevention, which led me to work for the Edison Health Department at the Municipal Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention. While there, I was exposed to all aspects of the health department and my love of education led me to return to school in 1998 for my MPH (master’s in public health) from the Rutgers School of Public Health.”

Nearly two decades after receiving her master’s from Rutgers, Harrison-Gulla decided to return as part of the first cohort of students for the school’s new doctoral degree in Leadership, Practice, and Research.

In March, Harrison-Gulla defended her doctoral dissertation, which focused on the mental health challenges that public health workers faced in New Jersey, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I aim to provide data advocating for a stronger governmental public health system in New Jersey,” Harrison-Gulla said.

Harrison-Gulla said her graduation – a day after Mother’s Day — represents years of hard work and dedication and a new chapter in her journey as a public health leader and advocate.

“Now that I have reached this milestone, proudly, at 57, I am ready to take the next steps and use what I have learned from the program to impact New Jersey public health as an educator and advocate, but also take what I’ve learned to potentially impact public health on a national level,” Harrison-Gulla said.

The family legacy of public health service continues as her daughter, Jillian Gulla, to whom she gave birth while pursuing her master’s, is following in her mother’s footsteps. Gulla is currently enrolled at Rutgers School of Public Health focusing her studies on health systems and policy, with a goal of addressing systemic issues in health administration and promoting equity and transparency within the healthcare system.

“I have a great privilege from my mom’s experiences with Rutgers and her years in public health because I can come home from class to talk about what I’ve learned and brainstorm ideas for changes I’d like to make in my career,” Gulla said. “While we are at very different points in our time at Rutgers, it’s like I have a teammate for figuring out how to tackle important public health areas I’d like to see evolve.”

Gulla’s decision to start her master’s degree was deeply influenced by her mother’s career and their family’s experiences with health issues, particularly a family member’s rare form of epilepsy.

“Growing up, I witnessed firsthand the impact of neurodevelopmental disorders and the need for continued research and resources,” Gulla shared. “I knew that I wanted to be part of the solution and make a meaningful difference in the lives of others.”

As mother and daughter, the two share a deep bond and a commitment to advancing public health. “As I am finishing my journey and Jillian starts hers, I hope that I can be a role model to her to keep pushing even when you are most frustrated; as a teacher, I want to be a resource for her, and as a mom, I will continue to be her biggest cheerleader,” Harrison-Gulla said. “As Jillian starts her classes and we discuss what she is learning, she will continue to inspire my passion for public health.”

For Harrison-Gulla, her public health journey has been a way to honor her father and family’s legacy. Her grandfather promoted good health behaviors to prevent illness and disease, instilling Harrison-Gulla’s passion for learning and education. Her son, Tyler Gulla, who was just 6 years old when she earned her master’s, is now a physical therapist.

Harrison-Gulla’s story illuminates the power of resilience and epitomizes a relentless pursuit of healing and advocacy.

“Over the course of three decades, I have had the opportunity to see how much has progressed and changed and sadly how much has stayed the same,” said Harrison-Gulla. “For us to be a country with so much, we are lacking in the general health of our people, and even worse, we still fall far behind in taking care of our most vulnerable and disproportionately affected.”

“However, I have learned that it is crucial to learn how to be an advocate. For yourself, for public health, and for the community you serve. We need more people to speak up and support making changes. You won’t always be liked for your opinion but if it is based in fact and with good intentions, you can find confidence in your actions.”

Professor Gulla teaches Principles of Public Health, Health Disparities, Principles of Health and Wellness, Epidemiology, Leadership Seminar, and Professional Practice #nternship at the Bloustein School.

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