Katie Towns, ’00 & ’07, often credits her Missouri State education for her ability to face a challenge.
In August 2021, Towns was named the Springfield-Greene County Health Department director.
Her appointment came after a year and a half of leading the department’s response to COVID-19 as assistant director.
“After many years of establishing confidence and challenging my mindset, I was honored to be extended the director role,” Towns said. “I know I still have room to improve and get better, but I remember thinking, ‘OK. I can do this.’”
Studying sports medicine at Missouri State
Towns’ years-long journey to director had many stops along the way. It began at Missouri State in 1996.
Towns, a St. Louis native, chose MSU for college because it had the only accredited sports medicine program in Missouri.
“It’s an intense program, which didn’t leave a lot of room for free time, but I learned to balance as I got further along,” Towns said.
Between belly laughs with friends in Woods House, sprints to class down Kings Street and meetings with her campus ministry, Icthus, Towns found a home at Missouri State, along with tastes of freedom.
Starting a public-health career
After graduating with a bachelor’s in sports medicine in 2000, Towns moved back to St. Louis. She had a job delivering medical equipment to homebound patients who were recovering post-surgery.
A few years later, she started looking at master’s programs at Missouri State.
“I chose public health because it combined my love for health care, science and education,” Towns said. “It was a sweet spot for me.”
While in Springfield for graduate school, Towns was a graduate assistant for the Ozarks Public Health Institute, or OPHI. This was her first step into the world of public health.
“A lot of my time there was working on raising awareness about tobacco-free zones, which were new at the time,” Towns said.
Through the OPHI, Towns got connected to other public health professionals in the community.
That came in handy as she approached graduation from her master’s program in 2007.
“Life gives you what you need”
Towns’ public health career began beside cancer patients, educating them about services available through the American Cancer Society, or ACS.
She stayed there, advancing through promotions, until the recession hit in 2008.
“I could see that my job with the ACS would probably be seen as ancillary once the layoffs began, so I started to plan,” Towns said.
That plan included reaching out to Kevin Gipson, who was then the health department director. Gipson was one of Towns’ professors during her graduate program.
“He told me when I graduated, ‘If you’re ever looking for a job, give me a call,’” Towns said. “I didn’t think I had any interest in working in municipal government, but sometimes, life gives you what you need.”
Strength during a time of crisis
Since then, Towns has stepped into other roles.
She had a two-year stint at CoxHealth, then helped Springfield tackle challenges and changes at the health department: The H1N1 pandemic, the passing of the Affordable Care Act and, most recently, COVID-19.
“I’ve leaned on my public health education so much during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Towns said. “I learned the medical information I needed, but I also learned about human psychology, actions and the value systems people lean on in times of crisis. It stretched my mind and helped me engage with people in ways I might not have before.”
As she worked through the pandemic as assistant director, then as director, Towns had moments where it seemed impossible to keep going.
“I was often pushed forward by the people in our department, who refused to give up,” Towns said.
“And it encouraged me to keep testing my own strength. On the days thoughts of, ‘I could quit,’ crept in, I kept saying, ‘Nope. Not this time.’”
Towns also knew she had a responsibility to her children, Cole and Maren.
“Maren was in kindergarten when the pandemic shut down schools,” Towns said. “She asked me if spring break would always be that long. She didn’t understand what was happening around her. I knew when I came home every day, they needed to feel something stable and comforting.”
Promoting careers in her field
Towns said navigating the pandemic highlighted areas in which the public-health industry needs improvement.
“As a whole, public health has been underfunded and ill-prepared for emergencies, and we have to get better,” she said.
In the Springfield area, she hopes to initiate improvement through a stronger connection between the health department and area schools.
“There has never been more opportunity to highlight public health and show students that they can strongly consider this as a career choice,” Towns said.
The pandemic also reminded Towns why she loves Missouri State.
“I’m tremendously proud to be an MSU alum, especially after the support and presence of the university during COVID-19,” she said.
“We know that without that support, we wouldn’t have been able to navigate the response the way we did.”