Four outstanding individuals nominated by their peers received the School’s highest alumni honor at this year’s Alumni Award of Merit celebration, held virtually on September 29, 2020.
Alumni Award of Merit
Kathleen Kahn, MBBCh, MPH ’88, PhD, has devoted 30 years of public health practice to advancing the health and well-being of often-marginalized rural populations in South Africa and beyond. She is chief scientist of the MRC/Wits Agincourt Rural Public Health and Health Transitions Research Unit, an internationally recognized, interdisciplinary population-based research center in rural northeastern South Africa. In this role, she has been a senior adviser on issues of rural health and equity and has investigated and shed light on such divergent problems as HIV prevention, mental health, and metabolic disease, focusing on vulnerable adolescents and how to mitigate risk and foster resilience. All work is conducted in partnership with rural communities, public-sector stakeholders, and scientists around the world. This year, Kahn led the research center’s work to assess SARS-CoV-2 transmission, as well as the social and economic impact of containment measures.
In tandem with her research, Kahn is dedicated to public health education and capacity building. She is professor of public health and head of the interdisciplinary PhD program in public and population health at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. She launched the program in 2008, after having created the university’s MPH program—one of South Africa’s first—a decade earlier.
John Quelch, DBA ’77, SM ’78, MBA, is a bridge builder between the worlds of business and public health. The first person to graduate with degrees from both the Harvard Chan School and Harvard Business School, Quelch in 2013 became the first faculty member to hold joint primary appointments at the two schools. In this role, he designed a curriculum that gave students from both schools, mingled in the same classroom, an opportunity to integrate two differing mindsets in approaching important problems. In 2017, he joined the University of Miami, where he became dean of the Patti and Allan Herbert Business School, Leonard M. Miller University Professor, and vice provost for executive education. Earlier in his career, he held leadership and faculty positions at the London Business School and China Europe International Business School. He also served for nine years as chair of the Massachusetts Port Authority, having been appointed after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
The author of more than a dozen books, Quelch has focused his research on topics including the application of marketing to preventive health care programs and consumer empowerment in health care. He currently serves as a member of the Harvard Chan School’s Board of Dean’s Advisors.
Judith Salerno, SM ’76, MD ’85, has built a career blending clinical, research, and health policy experience in both government agencies and nonprofits. After earning her medical degree from Harvard Medical School and completing clinical training at Georgetown University Hospital, she was a research fellow at the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging. At the Veterans Health Administration, where she had oversight responsibility for all geriatric and long-term-care programs for the Veterans Affairs health system, she launched widely recognized national initiatives for pain management and improved end-of-life care. In 2001, she was appointed deputy director of the National Institute on Aging. She later served as the executive director and chief operating officer of the Institute of Medicine, now the National Academy of Medicine, and president and CEO of Susan G. Komen, the world’s largest breast cancer organization.
Today, Salerno is president of the New York Academy of Medicine, where she leads strategic initiatives to advance health equity, focusing on healthy aging, disparities in maternal mortality, and child health and well-being. She continues to see patients on a volunteer basis—most recently as a palliative care physician at New York’s Bellevue Hospital during the coronavirus pandemic.
Kent Woods, MA, MD, SM ’83, is emeritus professor of therapeutics in the Department of Cardiovascular Sciences at the University of Leicester, U.K. Known as a leader in academic clinical pharmacology and medical regulation, Woods has helped bring medical innovation and safe treatments to millions in the United Kingdom and throughout the world.
Woods joined the University of Leicester in 1984, overseeing one of the busiest cardiovascular units in the U.K. and presiding over research on pioneering new treatments in cardiovascular medicine. With the help of these innovations, the hospital saw a 40 percent drop in fatalities from myocardial infarction in just seven years. Woods published prolifically, with more than 160 papers in prestigious medical journals over his career.
In the 1990s, Woods also began a career in government health policy. He became director of the National Health Service (NHS) Health Technology Assessment Program in 1999. He left clinical practice in 2004 to become the first chief executive of the U.K.’s newly created Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, a position he held until 2013. From 2011 until 2015, he chaired the European Medicines Agency. He was knighted for his services to health care in 2011 at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.
Three additional awards recognized alumni achievements in various areas of public health and various stages of public health careers.
The Emerging Public Health Professional Award recognizes early-career public health achievements and contributions of graduates who received their degrees within the past 10 years and who are role models for current and future public health professionals through early-career leadership and selfless dedication in any area of public health.
Kimberly Chang, MD, MPH ’15, leads a national charge to address human trafficking as a public health issue. While working as a physician in Oakland, California, Chang realized that some children who came to her clinic were victims of sex trafficking. In 2013, she co-founded the advocacy organization HEAL Trafficking. Later, as a student and Commonwealth Fund Fellow in Minority Health Policy at the Harvard Chan School, she developed policy recommendations for federally qualified health centers to address human trafficking and immediately went to work with government agencies; local, state, and national associations; and community-based organizations to implement her recommendations. All of her policy recommendations were implemented within five years of graduation.
Chang helped develop and secure funding for, and is now a senior adviser to, the National Health Network on Intimate Partner Violence and Human Trafficking through Futures Without Violence, to provide training and technical assistance to health centers. She also works as a human trafficking and health care policy fellow and lead health policy strategist at Asian Health Services in Oakland, where she still sees patients twice a week. [Read a Harvard Public Health profile of Kimberly Chang from Winter 2016]
The Public Health Innovator Award recognizes a significant contribution to public health made by an alumna or alumnus for an innovative idea or approach to public health delivery, via the science, practice, or teaching of public health.
Zain Kassam, MD, MPH ’14, is chief medical officer at Finch Therapeutics in Somerville, Massachusetts. In 2011, as a gastroenterology fellow at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, Kassam observed the suffering of patients with antibiotic-resistant C. difficile infections. He successfully pursued what was then an unusual treatment—fecal microbiota transplantation, or FMT, the first microbiome therapeutic. After earning his MPH at the Harvard Chan School and completing postdoctoral training at MIT, he became the founding chief medical officer of OpenBiome, a nonprofit stool bank that provided safe access to FMT treatment.
More recently, Kassam worked with OpenBiome’s founding team to co-found Finch Therapeutics, which builds off existing work in FMT to develop a new class of microbiome medicines, including a next-generation oral capsule to restore a disrupted microbiome. Kassam recently led the completion of the first positive, randomized, placebo-controlled, multicenter trial demonstrating the efficacy and safety of an oral microbiome drug in the treatment of recurrent C. difficile.
The Leadership in Public Health Practice Award recognizes a graduate who has served as an outstanding example of effective leadership in the practice of public health in the public or private sphere, demonstrated selfless service and leadership in the practice of public health, made significant contributions to the adoption or uptake of public health principles at the local, state, regional, national, or international level, and/or has shown significant leadership in a government, nongovernmental, or other public service organization.
Mandy Cohen, MPH ’04, MD, is secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Among Cohen’s achievements since her appointment in 2017 are the improvement of North Carolina’s Medicaid program (including a first-of-its-kind effort to analyze social determinants of health to improve outcomes), measures to address the opioid crisis, and leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before her appointment in North Carolina, Cohen served as chief of staff and chief operating officer at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). Earlier in her career, Cohen worked for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, before becoming executive director of the nonprofit Doctors for America. She joined the CMS Innovation Center as director of stakeholder engagement in 2010. Three years later, when the website healthcare.gov struggled under the great volume of Americans seeking to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, Cohen was recruited to the team to help turn things around. Within six months, she was leading the health insurance marketplace at the federal level.