‘Crossroads’ conversations: Faculty, alums share key career moments with students

Students, faculty, and alumni at Crossroads Dinner
Students, faculty, and alumni at Crossroads Dinner

New “Crossroads” dinner series offers students opportunity to hear about career and life journeys

October 20, 2023 – Years ago, Frank Hu faced a career crossroads—whether to work for a private company or take an academic position.

He chose the latter and went on to a fruitful career at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, conducting groundbreaking research on the relationship between diet and lifestyle factors and disease. He also moved up the ranks, eventually becoming chair of the Department of Nutrition. In that role, he had to fill what he called the “big shoes” of his mentor Walter Willett, a renowned nutrition expert—another major crossroads.

Frank Hu at Crossroads Dinner
Speaker Frank Hu

Hu was one of four Harvard Chan faculty and alumni who shared stories about major transitional moments in their careers and lives at an October 16 dinner with students in Kresge 110. The “Crossroads Dinner” was part of a monthly series that began in September, with support from Erin Driver-Linn, dean for education, and Maritza Hernandez, associate dean for student services.

The series was initiated after leaders of the Harvard Chan Student Association (HCSA) advocated last year for more networking opportunities with faculty and leaders outside the classroom, according to HCSA president Gabriela Rosa, who attended the dinner. “It was a wonderfully delightful evening, on so many levels,” she said.

Others who spoke at the dinner included Scarlett Bellamy, SM ’97, SD ’01, chair and professor of biostatistics at the Boston University School of Public Health; Sonia Hernández-Díaz, professor of epidemiology at Harvard Chan School; and Aaron Holman, previously a consultant on Medicaid modernization and currently an instructor in Harvard Chan School’s Department of Health Policy and Management.

Bellamy, who came from a family of tobacco farmers in North Carolina, spoke about her educational journey, which included an undergraduate degree in math, summer internships in biostatistics, and a PhD in biostatistics at Harvard. Choosing to attend Harvard and to earn a PhD were both key transitional moments for her.

Hernández-Díaz reached a crossroads when she was choosing between a clinical career and epidemiological research—and she advised students to build a career strategically but with flexibility. She recalled initially wanting to win the Nobel Prize for finding the cure for cancer. But over time she became more realistic, realizing that she would be happy if she could contribute to improving the health of populations through research and by helping train others who might discover the cure for cancer.

Holman said that his career choices were sometimes influenced by factors that he couldn’t ignore, such as needing to repay debt or be located in a specific region, desiring a more senior role, or seeking more prestige. But he always stuck to his core value of improving health care. His message to students: “Health care is massive, you can’t do it all, pick an area where you think you can make a positive impact that aligns with your core values, and give it a go.”

James Frater, MPH ’24, said he signed up for the dinner to hear from faculty and alumni about their career journeys. “When you are at the start of your career, it is easy to believe that you are supposed to have your life completely figured out,” he said after the dinner. “So it was very encouraging to hear from others who have not always been clear about their path but have managed to create a career that aligns with who they are and what they care about.”

He added, “Life at the School can feel very busy, so this was a great opportunity to slow down and focus on building meaningful connections.”

Future Crossroads Dinners are planned for November 16 and December 4. Students seeking connections with administrators can consider attending one of the Lunches with Leadership—an opportunity to join members of School leadership for lunch and conversation at Sebastian’s Café. Upcoming lunches will be held from 1–2 pm on Oct. 23, Nov. 8, Nov. 16, Dec. 6, and Dec. 12.

Karen Feldscher

Photos courtesy Gabriela Rosa