Message from the Dean: Our Frontier Mentality

Dean Michelle A. Williams
Dean Michelle A. Williams

In 2016, when I became Dean, I launched a listening tour of the School that lasted a year and a half. During that time, people shared with me their deep aspirations to take on big problems—and bring about solutions. This message rang loud and clear from students, faculty, staff, alumni, and donors. The time for incrementalism was over, they told me. This is the moment for Harvard Chan to align its formidable scholarship, inspired vision, and deep institutional engagement to take on the world’s biggest public health challenges.

The cover story of this issue of Harvard Public Health explores the five frontiers that arose from these wide-ranging conversations. Fittingly, the voices are some of the School’s rising stars, whose research and passion will drive us toward the goals we have collectively staked out: Reimagining Aging, Overcoming Violence, Confronting Climate Change, Cultivating Well-Being and Nutrition, and Conquering Epidemics. Other features in the magazine also illustrate our School’s frontier orientation—from a novel collaboration that promises to reduce gun suicide in Utah to brand-new paradigms about cell communication to the clinical benefits that will accompany our understanding of the human microbiome.

What will it take to conquer these frontiers over the next 30 to 50 years? Partly cutting-edge technology—a fact I gratefully acknowledge in my own career as a quantitative scientist, a journey in which I have directly benefited from advances in the computational fields, genomics, and molecular biology. But as important as technology is how we integrate what we glean from the humanities and studies of the social determinants of health. We must take into account health systems, reproductive health, access to preventive services, and policies around food security, housing, and education.

Most of all, we must amplify our voices and tell the stories of the human impact of our rigorous science. It is through narrative that we will garner the social and political will of individuals, communities, government, industry, and the philanthropic community. Just as data, evidence, commitment to facts, and commitment to truth are the foundations of all of science, so they are the foundations of science communication. At Harvard Chan, we are closing the gaps between discovery, research, translation, and implementation. We have a powerful story to tell—and now is the moment to tell it.

Michelle A. Williams, ScD ’91

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

Photo: Ben Gebo