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Weller fund helps Wichita MPH students do the work and research its namesake loved

The fund named for Lawrence A. Weller supports Master of Public Health students at KU School of Medicine-Wichita who are conducting research while completing an internship or capstone project.

Larry and Doris Weller stand together outside in this file photo
“Our family always had limited resources, but our priorities were always learning and education and research,” said Doris Weller, standing in this courtesy photo alongside Larry Weller, her husband of 55 years. “We understand it can be difficult for students when funds are not available. We’ve been there.”

Larry Weller earned bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in physics and a master’s in applied mathematics, all of which he put to work in nuclear engineering, aerospace and occupational health. But it was the lifelong learner’s final degree – a master’s of public health earned at age 76 from KU School of Medicine-Wichita – that continues to pay dividends today.

“When Dad died, the questions were what mattered to him and what can we do?” says his son Jason Weller, and the answer was public health, the medical school and a fund the family created in 2018, five years after his passing.

Each school year, the Lawrence A. Weller ’03 Family Research Fund supports Wichita MPH students who are conducting research while completing an internship or capstone project. Last fall, three students received the $1,500 awards.

“Our family always had limited resources, but our priorities were always learning and education and research,” says Doris, Larry’s wife of 55 years. “We understand it can be difficult for students when funds are not available. We’ve been there.”

The fund and what it supports

The two-year MPH program in the Department of Population Health has about 60 to 70 students a year, with about half managed by the Wichita campus. Some come right out of undergraduate work or before or after medical school, but others pursue master’s mid-career. Some are traditional students; others take part in a largely online program.

Wichita MPH students do their research and capstone work with faculty in Wichita and Kansas City. The Wichita-based vice chair, Professor Elizabeth Ablah, Ph.D., MPH, CPH, and others on the campus often provide guidance.

The Weller awards can be used for housing, food and commuting costs, for fees and travel to conferences, or for things like software that research requires. The flexibility and support are important to Doris Weller, who said both she and her husband depended on scholarships (and the GI Bill in Larry’s case) for their educations.

Students prioritize tuition and rent, but research costs and traveling to conferences can be outside their budgets, says Kansas City-based Simon Craddock Lee, Ph.D., MPH, chair of Population Health. Driving to Garden City four or five times a month or motoring all over Wichita for a project adds up, he notes.

“Some needs of students are really quite small, but it’s big to the student – $1,500 can make a really significant contribution,” says Lee, recalling his steady diet of rice and beans as a student.

“Research is fundamental to the graduate school experience and really important to the evolution of the student as a health professional,” Lee says. “The Wellers’ support helps ensure that financial costs are not a barrier to being part of the team and doing work outside their classes.”

A graduate student advanced in age and learning

Jobs and education brought Larry and Doris multiple stops, including Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Dayton and Columbus, Ohio. They had two sons, Steven and Jason, and came to Wichita in 1980, with Larry working at Boeing and Doris as a social worker in the Wichita public schools. He worked in avionics, one project being conversions of 747s into presidential Air Force Ones.

Doris and Larry Weller After retiring from Boeing, Larry taught mathematics at local colleges and continued to engage his mind and interests by auditing – as those over 60 can – classes at Wichita State University and then KU School of Medicine-Wichita. He helped one friend with research and later, after another faculty friend told him he must enroll to take her class, Larry moved from auditor to official MPH enrollee.

“He learned a lot and appreciated the students in his classes. They were engaged in different fields, and he found that very stimulating,” Doris recalls.

For his capstone, he conducted research on how Wichita school nurses performed their roles.

“Dad was enormously proud to have completed the MPH degree and have had his work published. He had a broad interest in the practical side of public health, of how to solve problems and how to get the right information out,” Jason says.

After graduating, Larry maintained ties to the program and staff.

“Larry was one of those super smart people who was just interested in everything,” says Melissa Armstrong, director of MPH adult and online learners in Wichita. “He loved the capstones, which are applied research and kind of like a thesis. I loved having him come simply because he asked the best questions. There was quite the discrepancy in the age of Larry and our other learners. His questions were good for those kids, as he thought about things differently because of his background in physics and occupational safety.”

“Larry would also stop by the office and share information, saying, ‘I think you’ll like this’ as he passed along flyers and articles,” Armstrong recalls.

As Larry’s health faltered, Doris accompanied him to the medical school and capstones. The tradition continues, as arrangements were made for the Wellers to watch the latest capstones.

“He loved being part of the public health community, which he found incredibly welcoming, and not just to him but to my mom as well,” Jason says.

The awardees and their work

The research MPH students do illustrates both their interests and backgrounds.

Amanda Perkins, who presented her capstone and graduated in December, examined the gaps in mental health services across a range of providers in Sedgwick County. The research supported an initiative funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study creation of a mental health task force in the county by conducting a needs assessment and possible strategies and interventions.

Kipchoge VanHoose grew up in Kansas City, lives in Louisiana and is earning his master’s online. He is presenting his capstone in April, drawing on research into language barriers and how they hinder access to health care and social services for non-English speakers. He surveyed health and social service agencies in Sedgwick County about their needs, with one intent being to determine whether they had language-access plans (few did) and used trained interpreters.

“That’s the kind of project that’s really facilitated by our faculty’s relationships with various agencies,” Lee says.

Money, family responsibilities and time for writing all could have been barriers, VanHoose said, especially if he’d worked more than part time.

“The Weller fund was pivotal in allowing me to work on my internship and research unimpeded,” he said. “I put a lot of hours into this study, and I only had the time because of the support from the fund.”

Students stand beside a research posterKilyn Parisien, who double-majored in psychology and sociology and minored in population health at KU, is also presenting her capstone in April. Working with a team led by Christina Pacheco, J.D., MPH, assistant professor in family medicine on the Kansas City campus, she conducted semi-structured interviews about the maternal health experiences of Native American women. The findings were presented as a poster, “Dancing between cultures: Indigenous perspectives on the intersections of culture and U.S. health care system,” at the American Public Health Association annual conference last fall.

The risk of pregnancy-related death for Native women is two to three times that of white women. Parisien, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, has “seen a lot of these disparities in real time. I saw things I could work on, and a degree was the best way to go about it.”

“I have always wanted to present research, so it was a dream come true,” says Parisien, who lives on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. “I would not have been able to attend the conference without the Weller fund, which covered airfare and registration fees.”

For Parisien, who is earning her MPH online and received much of her college education the same way, a career in public health “was hard to visualize” before the conference but attending made her realize this is “something I could do regularly.” The conference allowed her to meet her mentor, Pacheco, face-to-face for the first time, which was “kind of surreal.”

“We always want to make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing with funds that were given,” Lee says. “With the Wellers, that’s public health research, and the way we’re doing it is enabling students to participate.”

“We are a family that believes in making contributions. And step by step we’ve been able to build up the fund,” says Doris, adding KU Endowment “has been wonderful” about working with them and maintaining ties.

“It’s kept us connected to what was not only important to our father but also became important to our family,” Jason says. “There’s enormous pride in what the faculty, students and staff have accomplished. There’s this idea that KU should be grateful to you and at some level maybe there’s some truth to that, but we also get a lot back.”

Above, left: Doris and Larry Weller (courtesy photo)

Above, right: Kilyn Parisien, left, and Christina Pacheco, J.D., MPH, right, stand next to the research poster presented at the American Public Health Association annual conference last fall.

Adding to the Weller fund

If you would like to make a gift to the Lawrence A. Weller ’03 Family Research Fund at KU School of Medicine-Wichita, contact Brad Rukes, KU Endowment development director for the Wichita campus, at 316-293-2641 or


KU School of Medicine-Wichita