Looking Back on Fall 2019

Dear Members of the Harvard Chan School Community:

Happy New Year and welcome back from what I hope was a joyous break! I am a firm believer in the value of mental and physical resets, and I hope that you, like me, are returning with a renewed sense of purpose for the work we do here at the School.

Before another busy semester begins, I wanted to take a look back at some of our many accomplishments from the fall. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it does serve to encapsulate the tremendous work of our community and the unwavering commitment that each of you shows to the life-altering work of public health.

New Ideas, New Partnerships

Hopefully by now you are all aware of our exciting new partnership with Apple. The Apple Women’s Health Study formally launched on November 14 with a segment on “Good Morning America” featuring Apple’s Vice President of Health, Dr. Sumbul Desai. I truly see this study as an example of the future of public health—a three-way partnership between academia, industry, and government that leverages technology to study women’s health on an unprecedented scale.

The Apple Women’s Health Study is also just one example of the School’s new NextGen initiative, which I first wrote about last fall—an embrace of the technologies, collaborations, and innovations that can unlock solutions to our most complex public health problems. Throughout the year, we will be updating you on additional ways that Harvard Chan faculty, administrators, and students are embracing forward-looking strategies in the name of advancing public health. One of our newest endeavors that falls under this umbrella is the just-launched Harvard Chan Advanced Multi-omics Platform, or ChAMP. This new technology platform, housed in the Department of Molecular Metabolism, consists of state-of-the-art mass spectrometry instruments developed by Thermo Fisher Scientific.

This fall, the School also launched new event programming aimed at capturing the breadth, depth, and innovation of our work across the Frontiers research areas. Addressing topics as diverse as the opioid crisis (Conquering Epidemics) and the legacy of slavery (Overcoming Violence) these lectures, film screenings, and symposia brought together leading thinkers across disciplines and institutions to foster dialogue around the world’s most pressing public health problems. Our ambitious programming will continue this spring. Among the planned events is “Confronting the Climate Crisis: Choosing a Healthier Future” on April 15 featuring keynote speaker Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. On March 5, we will also welcome John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, to deliver the inaugural Joseph S. Ayepong Distinguished Lecture on Public Health in Africa, co-hosted by the Harvard University Center for African Studies, the Harvard Chan School, and Harvard Medical School. We will be announcing additional events in the near future.

Supporting Our Community

In September I wrote to you about the launch of Harvard Onboarding Made Easy, or HOME, our new concierge program designed to streamline and enhance the support given to incoming faculty members as they prepare for their first grant submission. Thirteen new faculty participated in the pilot program, and I have been delighted with all of the positive feedback we have received so far. As John Quackenbush, chair of the Department of Biostatistics, put it, “HOME is the type of program I wish I had when I was starting my career. I can see that it has reduced their anxiety about the process; I know it will help increase their grant funding success and ensure that the Harvard Chan School continues its leading position in public health research.”

I am also pleased to announce that we are launching the Dean’s Emergency Response Fund this month. The goal of the fund is to ensure that the Harvard Chan School can rapidly and reliably detect, respond to, and – whenever possible – prevent adverse outcomes in public health emergencies. The fund will support research in the context of an actual public health emergency, such as a natural disaster or an infectious disease outbreak, or to understand a policy change where there is a limited window to gather baseline and outcome data. Primary Harvard Chan faculty members whose research operation is based at the School are eligible to apply.

We also welcomed two additional faculty members this fall: Jose Figueroa, assistant professor of health policy and management, and Ellen Meara, professor of health economics and policy.

On the student side, we piloted the Professional Development Fund, aimed at reducing individual students’ costs to participate in or organize experiences that contribute to their professional development. Students can use this new fund to subsidize attendance at conferences at which they are presenting or attending. They can also request funds to subsidize events at the School, such as panels and seminars.

Food insecurity has been one of the challenges that some of our students and postdoctoral fellows face, together with tuition and the high cost of living in Boston. As a means to address this issue, we are starting a new program in the Kresge Cafeteria called the Daily Dollar Deal. This will be a daily offering at breakfast or lunch for $1, and the program will be open to the entire School community. The first daily dollar deal will be lunch on January 6, 2020.

Once more this fall, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the Prevention Research Center on Nutrition and Physical Activity cosponsored the eight-week Leaders in Health program, which empowers local community health workers through an introductory training in public health. The program has so far trained 45 community practitioners across five cohorts. This fall we trained nine participants from organizations such as the Boston Public Health Commission, Sociedad Latina, Fenway Community Center, and Roxbury Tenants of Harvard and celebrated their accomplishments during a capstone event on November 7.

As you might have seen, Harvard President Larry Bacow recently convened a new University-wide initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery composed of faculty across schools. I am pleased to say that David Williams, Florence Sprague Norman and Laura Smart Norman Professor of Public Health and chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, has agreed to be one of the 12 committee members.

Leading the Conversation

There continue to be daunting challenges facing public health these days—something we saw as recently as October, when the EPA announced it was moving forward with a rule to curtail the scientific research used to determine public health regulations, despite an enormous backlash during the comment period. I was one of 60 public health deans and program directors to sign letters to President Donald Trump and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler expressing strong opposition to this administration proposal.

As a School, we have also continued to place an increasing priority on amplifying the voices of our researchers in the public sphere. This fall our faculty and students wrote and published a series of op-eds on a broad range of topics, including gun violence, the climate crisis, the meat alternative movement, surprise medical bills, and more. These efforts underscore my belief that we need to share our ideas from academia and deliberately add our voices in the broader arena so as to spark new thinking and shift public opinion for a healthier world. We saw just why this is so in December, when Congress passed a spending deal that included funding for gun violence research for the first time in decades, allotting $25 million to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. This public health victory would not have been possible without the tireless and visible advocacy of so many, academics included.

As we look to the future and our priorities ahead, it is exciting to explore the ways in which our cross-disciplinary innovations and collaborations can propel the next generation of public health work. I continue to feel so proud to be a part of this community, and I look forward to seeing what great work lies ahead for us in the new year, and the new decade.

With my best wishes,

Michelle A. Williams, ScD
Dean of the Faculty, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Angelopoulos Professor in Public Health and International Development,
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Kennedy School