A Q&A with public health students in Beijing

Recently, I was invited to speak to the next generation of public health leaders and researchers as part of a summer lecture series at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. The questions posed by students were clear, practical, and resonant, so I’d like to share some with you, along with my responses.

What do you think of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade? What role should scientific evidence play in the law-making process?

  • I was horrified by that ruling. It was reckless and it was wrong. The right to abortion is a fundamental and essential component of health care. And now tens of millions of women in the U.S. will be denied access.
  • Women will die because of this ruling.
  • And we know the hardship and pain will fall disproportionately on poor women and women of color. In the U.S., Black women are at least three times more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes than White women.
  • Science should inform the law-making process, but often it does not.
  • In the past year, hundreds of public health experts urged the court to uphold abortion rights. We shared voluminous evidence documenting the importance of access to abortion – including research showing that denying women an abortion had a sharply detrimental effect on the physical, emotional, and financial futures of the women and their children.
  • None of that made any difference to the majority of justices.

What’s your advice for people considering venturing into public health entrepreneurship?

  • Public health entrepreneurship provides a pathway for action to address urgent issues in public health.
  • It’s important to nurture a culture of entrepreneurship to turn academic insights and personal passions into startups with the potential for real-world impact.
  • At the Harvard Chan School, we are launching a flagship accelerator for student-run ventures, HealthLab. It will provide graduate and undergraduate student teams with funding and mentors to help turn their ideas into reality.
  • Overall, it’s important to learn to describe your entrepreneurial projects clearly and concisely, with a focus on articulating the public health need and proposed solution so that you can draw in the resources you need.
  • Recently, our Harvard Public Health magazine brought together founders and investors to talk about the challenges of developing public health products and services. They offered some excellent tips, which grew out of their personal experiences. You can find that conversation on our YouTube channel.

How could research institutions promote the utilization of research findings for health policy making and practice?

  • This is an excellent question that is central to our work in public health.
  • We have several important tools to elevate our research findings to the attention of policy makers
  • One avenue is through the media. We can publish op-eds or guest essays in media outlets that are read by policymakers. We can also engage with journalists, providing quotes for print or online stories and agreeing to appear on television and radio programs to provide evidence-based policy recommendations.
  • Increasingly, social media is becoming an important way to engage with both journalists and policy makers. Some of our faculty now have hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter, for instance.
  • Another way to influence policy is by engaging with influential entities such as the World Economic Forum and the World Health Organization. They often convene task forces that assess evidence and put together policy guidance – and these efforts can be quite influential. They typically invite a variety of stakeholders to weigh in, including academics.
  • The common thread here is that we can’t just publish a paper in a peer-reviewed journal and then move on to the next topic. If we want our research to make a difference in the real world, we must take additional steps. We must translate that academic paper into accessible language; we must develop clear policy recommendations that flow from the findings; and we must put in the time and effort to engage with those who have the power to put our recommendations into action.

What can the future public health workforce do to encourage countries to join in global cooperation? What skills do we need?

  • Get involved! That’s my number one piece of advice. I expect you will all have excellent jobs in public health. That’s an important start – but it’s only a start.
  • I encourage you to remain involved with your universities, to support activist and advocacy groups engaged in causes you care about, and to press your policy makers to take action to build a healthier world.

The advice I shared with the students in Beijing applies to all of us. It can sometimes feel overwhelming to look at all the challenges we face in this world. But if you take one step at a time, if you make the time to get involved, to raise your voice, you can make a difference.