Career in public health inspired by family heritage and personal challenges

Lisa Gulla standing in front of a sign saying I'm Public Health
Lisa Harrison-Gulla’s journey is rooted in family heritage – her grandfather, Herman Weiss, one of the nation’s first physical therapists – and shaped by personal experiences and challenges.

Lisa Harrison-Gulla began her career in public health 30 years ago helping people suffering from addiction in their treatment and recovery. Today, she uses her experience – along with a new doctorate from Rutgers – to help shape policies supporting the public health workforce.

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

“Initially, my career was focused on overcoming addiction through individual treatment,” she said. “My initial decision to specialize in addictions was influenced by my father’s addiction and his death when I was 16 years old. »

Harrison-Gulla later studied psychology, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree from Montclair State University and a master’s degree 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 within the Municipal Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention. 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 of Public Health) from Rutgers School of Public Health.

Nearly two decades after earning her master’s degree at Rutgers, Harrison-Gulla decided to return as part of the first cohort of students for the school’s new program. doctorate in leadership, practice and research.

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

“My goal is to provide data advocating for a stronger government 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 leader and advocate for public health.

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

The family’s legacy of public health service continues as her daughter, Jillian Gulla, who she gave birth to while pursuing her master’s degree, follows in her mother’s footsteps. Gulla is currently enrolled at the Rutgers School of Public Health and focuses her studies on health systems and policies, with the goal of solving systemic problems in health administration and promoting equity and transparency within of the health system.

“I am very privileged because of my mother’s experiences at Rutgers and her years in public health, because I can come home from classes to talk about what I learned and brainstorm ideas about changes I would like to contribute to my career”, Gulla. said. “Although we are at very different times in our time at Rutgers, it feels like I have a teammate to figure out how to address important public health areas that I would like to see evolve.”

Gulla’s decision to begin 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 the impact of neurodevelopmental disorders and the need for continued research and resources,” Gulla explained. “I knew 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 commitment to advancing public health. “As I end my journey and Jillian begins hers, I hope I can be a role model for her and continue to push 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 begins her classes and we discuss what she is learning, she will continue to inspire my passion for public health.”

For Harrison-Gulla, her journey in public health has been a way to honor the legacy of her father and family. His grandfather encouraged good health behaviors to prevent 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 degree, is now a physical therapist.

Harrison-Gulla’s story highlights the power of resilience and embodies a relentless quest for healing and advocacy.

“Over the course of three decades, I have had the opportunity to see how much has progressed and changed and, unfortunately, how much has stayed the same,” Harrison-Gulla said. “For us to be a country with so much going on, we are lacking in the overall health of our population and, even worse, we are still falling far behind in caring for the most vulnerable and disproportionately affected people. »

“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 out and support the changes. You won’t always be valued for your opinion, but if it’s based on facts and with good intentions, you can have confidence in your actions.