Chair’s Message: 2021 Year-End Update

2021 Year-End Chair’s Message

As 2021 draws to a close, it’s easy to look back at a year that has been dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic and lose sight of important work that all the members of our department have done in advancing public health and biomedical research. While our faculty, postdocs, and students have continued their cutting-edge research unabated by the pandemic, many have stepped up in addressing issues directly relevant to understanding and combatting the SARS-CoV-19 virus. This includes analyzing the viral genome, looking at the ways in which environmental factors influence disease risk and severity, and exploring population dynamics and disease spread—as well as advising local, state, and national governments about the best policies and advising schools and other groups about scientifically sound practices to mitigate COVID risk.

Our students have proven to be incredibly resilient in navigating their graduate education under circumstances that make learning more difficult, and they, and the faculty, are to be applauded for working together as we transitioned between remote and in-person education. It has been particularly rewarding to see faculty using what they learned during remote classes to innovate the way they present material today. And honestly, there is little that is more rewarding as a professor than seeing our students gathered together on the bridge between buildings 1 and 2 to work on assignments together—or to see our postdocs running hybrid journal clubs so that they can foster the personal interactions and encounters that fuel collaborative discovery.

The department staff, including the administrative and grants management teams, also deserve a great deal of thanks and credit for supporting all of our operations while we were remote and then doing the Herculean work of organizing all the elements necessary to allow many of us to return to campus. We are grateful for all of their efforts to answer student questions, help our faculty with all sorts of questions, and navigate the uncharted waters of rapidly evolving university policies and regulations affecting our international scholars.

It is also important that our department has continued moving forward in growing and supporting our community. Applications to our SM and PhD programs continue to expand, reflecting the excellence of the students who wish to carry on their educational journey with us. We launched a junior faculty search to find someone who will continue to strengthen and broaden the expertise in our department, and the candidates who have applied indicate we will continue building on the excellence of our research enterprise.

We’ve continued to address issues of diversity, belonging, equity, and inclusion. Our department-wide town hall with the consultants from VISIONS, Inc, created an opportunity for us look critically at racial and gender biases in our department, and our Department-sponsored symposium “Eugenics and Statistics: Past, Present, and Future” reminded us how we have the power to make a difference in our profession and science in general. It has been particularly rewarding to see our department members join subcommittees that have come together to explore ways that we can broaden our recruitment efforts to reach more Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, to better support and retain all of our community while acknowledging the unique challenges that some may face, and to create programs that raise awareness of systemic racism and its ongoing effects. We look forward to working with these groups to implement new strategies that will advance our mission.

As we look to 2022, what excites us most is the prospect of taking the “COVID off-ramp” and returning to something approaching “normal” departmental life in which our community of scholars can share time together. All of us certainly miss the opportunity to speak to our colleagues in the halls, to drop into their offices for a quick chat, or to grab someone for a quick beverage at the end of the day.  We also miss opportunities for our alumni and other departmental friends to visit the department and catch up on work and life.

The past two years remind us of the importance of the work that we all do. From pandemics and infectious diseases to structural racism, social and economic inequity, from climate change and social policy to genetics and behavior, we live in a world where our ability to collect, manage, analyze, and interpret data is increasingly important and valuable. As a department, we stand uniquely positioned to provide leadership in the quantitative health sciences so critically important for addressing today’s challenges and as a community, this is something we can best do together.

Thank you all for your being wonderful colleagues, collaborators, supporters, and friends. Happy holidays and best wishes for a healthy, happy, and successful 2022. We are so proud to be members of this incredible department and to have been trusted by you to lead our efforts. We are looking forward to seeing you again, in person, in the coming year.

John and Brent