Message from the Dean: Only Connect

Dean Michelle A. Williams
Dean Michelle A. Williams

Reading this issue of Harvard Public Health, I am reminded of how our profession is dramatically changing. Once a collection of somewhat isolated specialties, public health now centers on the ideas of interconnection and interdependence. In one sense, this shift reflects a trend across all scientific fields. As Robert E. Gropp, the co­-executive director of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, wrote last year, “Science is ever more an interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, interinstitutional, and international endeavor.” In my mind, public health is the quintessential example of that relational perspective.

The Latin prefix “inter” means “between,” “among,” “mutually,” “reciprocating,” “together.” The prefix “trans” means “across,” “beyond,” “through.” These empowering words shape today’s research frontiers at the Harvard Chan School—as this issue of the magazine illustrates.

Changing Places, the cover story on climate change, showcases the School’s wide-ranging work on protecting health in a shifting global environment. The profile of Afghanistan’s former minister of public health, Suraya Dalil­—who carried out an ambitious agenda despite deep cultural misogyny—evokes our goal of preventing harm and violence. MPH student Abu Abioye, who hopes to halt the epidemic of hearing loss in his homeland of Nigeria, exemplifies our mission of promoting wellness for all people. Molecular research in the laboratory of Gökhan Hotamisligil, chair of the Department of Molecular Metabolism, will someday translate into ensuring vitality for an aging population. Off the Cuff comments by Marc Lipsitch, who directs the School’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, reflect how a 1918-type strain of influenza would have a devastating impact precisely because of today’s vast, interconnected global supply chain. And the work of Margaret Kruk, associate professor of global health—the magazine’s Q&A interviewee, who chairs The Lancet Global Health Commission on High Quality Health Systems in the SDG [Sustainable Development Goals] Era—is the very embodiment of interdisciplinary inquiry.

Why the current emphasis on crossing academic and institutional boundaries? Because as we address increasingly complex problems, we realize that no one field will provide the answers. Of course, public health has always embraced interconnection. My own field of epidemiology is the science that helps uncover the often-invisible links among biology, environment, society, politics, and other contextual forces that lead to disease.

Public health is obligated to find solutions to today’s most urgent human challenges. In our quest to create a blueprint for change, we can’t afford to be naïve about the complexity of the problems. Working in a truly interconnected way, we are far more likely to succeed.

Michelle A. Williams, ScD ’91
Dean of the Faculty
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Photo: Ben Gebo