Dean's Note

Looking Back, with Gratitude | Dean's Note

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This week, I joined other members of the SPH community at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association. The meeting, held this year in San Diego, has long been an annual highlight. It is a chance to reconnect with friends and colleagues from across the country, to learn new approaches to our work, and to get a sense of where the field currently is—in terms of both its internal debates and priorities, and its place in the national conversation. This year’s meeting conveyed the sense that, in 2018, public health is flourishing. Rarely has our field been more engaged with the issues of consequence that shape our country and our world. From climate change, to socioeconomic inequality, to gun violence, to global health systems, public health is tackling the key challenges of the moment, and our school, through the work of our faculty, students, and staff, is actively engaged in all these areas. This was evident in the many contributions of our community at APHA to the work being done by our alumni, as exemplified by the outstanding graduates of our program, Aaron Cohen, Liz Cohen, and Sonja Tong, to whom we presented the Distinguished Alumni Award at our San Diego Think. Teach. Do. Reception. The latter was a lovely opportunity to reconnect our alumni with students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends of the school, a vibrant reminder of the passion, diversity, and truly global reach of our school’s “extended family.”

When I consider our community, I am struck by a sense of gratitude. It is a rare privilege to get to work each day among such a committed, passionate group of people, who are doing so much to build a healthier world. Our strong showing at APHA comes near the end of a year in which our school continued to court excellence in its pursuit of health. I would like here to provide a snapshot of these efforts, to look back, and, in the spirit of next week’s holiday, to give thanks for all we have done together. I do so mindful that it is impossible to provide a snapshot without leaving much out of the frame. This note is meant to be just a sample of the year’s achievements—omissions are due to space limitations, not neglect. I wrote a similar reflection near the end of 2017. That note was organized around the activities of our students, faculty, and staff. I will likewise focus this Note on three categories, using as a guide our school’s motto of “Think. Teach. Do.” which covers our scholarship, pedagogy, and practice—all areas where we have much to be thankful for.

To begin with our scholarship—SPH did much this year to advance our understanding of the forces that shape health, through a robust and varied program of research. For example, a study led by SPH researchers found a link between state laws permitting denial of services to same-sex couples and mental distress in sexual minority adults. SPH researchers also contributed to a study which found that racial segregation may increase the disparity in gun homicide between black and white populations. And SPH researchers continue to lead work on the Black Women’s Health Study, the largest follow-up study of the health of African American women ever conducted. This year, we also reaffirmed our commitment to supporting a new generation of public health scholars. In the fall of 2018, we awarded support for six new pilot projects, including our Early Career Catalyst Awards, which support pilot projects from junior faculty members as they begin their independent research careers. Research projects included air pollution, hepatitis C, prostate cancer, and zoonoses in Bangladesh, among many others.

This year also saw our school maintain and deepen our commitment to innovation in teaching. Building on the success of our redesigned MPH, we last November launched our Executive Master of Public Health. This program is tailored for public health professionals with at least five years of relevant experience, to craft an educational journey that respects and augments their prior work. We have also continued to expand our educational offerings through Population Health Exchange (PHX), our digital platform for lifelong learning. And we convened our Teaching Public Health symposium in March, bringing together experts from across the country to discuss the future of public health education. Finally, October marked our school’s Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) site visit, a milestone in the school’s ongoing accreditation process.

On the “do” front, 2018 provided many opportunities for SPH to express its commitment to advocacy and activism. Through our Activist Lab, students were able to receive advocacy training, which gave them the tools necessary to begin building a healthier community as soon as they arrived at SPH. Times have rarely been better suited for such work. As our unique political moment has created new openings for progressive change, our students have been well-positioned to take the lead on issues of consequence for health. Our participation in National Gun Violence Awareness Day and the March for Our Lives, for example, allowed us to engage with the pressing public health issue of gun safety reform. And our advocacy for keeping in place civil rights protections for transgender people in Massachusetts by voting “yes” on Question 3 in the midterm election showed our community’s willingness to engage with politics on behalf of health. That this campaign was successful, and “yes” on Question 3 won by an overwhelming margin, is yet another reason for gratitude, as we approach the year’s end.

Taken together, this snapshot portrays a school that is thriving, engaged, and committed to improving the social, economic, and environmental conditions that shape health. Just as public health stands poised to advance the cause of health in 2019, SPH is well-positioned to contribute to these efforts. And that is something to be grateful for indeed.

As we head to the Thanksgiving break, I hope our faculty and staff will join us on Monday, November 19, at noon in the Founder’s Room, for our 15th annual Thanksgiving Potluck Luncheon. If you wish to attend, please RSVP to Karen SmithMary Murphy-Phillips, or Joline Durant with your food or beverage contribution. I look forward to seeing many of you there. I will be baking cookies.

And to those I do not see between now and next week’s break—have a wonderful holiday. Thank you for all you do to make our school a special place.

I hope everyone has a terrific week. Until next week.

Warm regards,


Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Eric DelGizzo for his contributions to this Dean’s Note.

How Art Reflects the Conditions That Create Health | Dean's Note

Population health is shaped by a range of economic, cultural, and environmental factorsEconomic trendspolitical policiesclimate changethe rise of social movements all have a hand in creating or undermining health. These conditions, of course, contribute to much more than health. They shape all aspects of the world we live in. They also inspire art as a representation of our world, holding a “mirror up to nature” that allows us to better understand the forces that shape the human story. A note, then, on the intersection of art and population health, and how a deeper understanding of art can make us better students of the conditions that influence the health of populations.

It was with this in mind that we last weekend hosted, in partnership with the Boston University Center for the Humanities, a symposium, “Humanities Approaches to the Opioid Crisis.” The event brought together scholars, artists, and health professionals to explore how art can open a window into the conditions that created this epidemic. As the opioid crisis has worsened, is has become clear that this problem is too big to approach from a single perspective. We must widen our gaze, and see the crisis through the lens of many disciplines, including art, if we are to stop it. We should take a similarly broad view of other health challenges, using the insights of art to help us deepen our empathy, expand our imaginations, and find solutions we might have otherwise overlooked.

Building Cities That Bounce Back | Dean's Note

Last week, I co-wrote an article with Joan Saba, a partner at the architecture firm NBBJ, on how we can build more resilient communities by combining the ideas of architecture and public health. With hurricane season underway, the need for such resilience has rarely been more apparent. As I write this note, Hurricane Florence approaches the Carolinas and news reports warn of the storm’s potential destructiveness. These reports come almost exactly one year after Hurricane Maria showed us how devastating such storms can be. Whether Florence will approach Maria’s devastation is a question to be answered by time, hopefully in the negative. However, whether or not the Carolinas—or any region—have the resilience to absorb and recover from a disaster like a hurricane is a question we can indeed answer now.

Six Steps for a Healthier Massachusetts | Dean's Note

During summer, much of our school community spent time away from our campus—vacationing with family, working abroad, or simply adventuring. With the new academic year now underway, we have returned to SPH, to once more call Massachusetts home for the coming semester. With our deep roots in the state, it is worth taking a moment, as we renew our connection to the Commonwealth, to pause and consider health here.

A Word of Welcome | Dean's Note

One of the joys of working at a school is the opportunity, each September, to reconnect with returning members of our community, to welcome new students and faculty, and to experience the accompanying sense of possibility and renewal. It is an optimistic time, informed by our hopes for the coming year. As the fall begins, and we welcome new members to our school, I would like, in this season of return, to use this Dean’s Note to reaffirm the core values of SPH and revisit some ideas I have written about in prior notes.

Trauma and Its Aftermath | Dean's Note

At a time when much of the news is dismaying, last week brought a development that was, for a change, truly joyous. The rescue of a Thai soccer team, along with their coach, from the cave where they had been trapped for 18 days was a welcome conclusion to an at-times harrowing tale. While the death of one of the team’s rescuers—former Thai Navy SEAL Saman Kunan—prevents this ending from being an unequivocally happy one, the fact that the team is now out of immediate physical danger is something we can all celebrate.

Roe v. Wade and Abortion Rights in the Post-Kennedy Era | Dean's Note

The announcement that Justice Anthony Kennedy will retire from the US Supreme Court has created deep uncertainty about a range of issues related to health. Kennedy was regarded as a swing vote on the court—while he generally sided with the court’s conservative wing, he famously joined with progressive opinion on the issues of abortion and LGBT rights. His successor will likely make decisions about these and many other issues, including the economy, voting rightsthe environment, and the basic ground rules of our politics, all of which will have ramifications for health.

Social Movements in the Trump Era | Dean's Note

Last week, we ran a Dean’s Note addressing the Trump administration’s decision to separate families at the US border, and how these separations threatened health, particularly the health of children. They were the latest in a series of actions taken by this administration that have undermined health in the US and around the world. From its reinstatement of the Mexico City Policy, to its move to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement, to its tolerance, even encouragement, of hate groups, to recent events concerning the Supreme Court, the presidency of Donald Trump has so far done much to dismay those who care about compassioninclusion, and health. Furthering this calumny, this week the Supreme Court upheld Trump’s travel ban on the grounds that it is within executive powers to create such a ban, even as this ban is clearly founded on xenophobia and Islamophobia, an appeal to the basest instinct of a political base that would keep us back from building a better and healthier world for all of us and for our children.