Welcome Back from Dean Williams

Dear Members of the Harvard Chan School Community,

Greetings, and welcome back!

This semester feels especially meaningful, as we’re not only beginning a new academic year, but a new chapter for our school, after so many months spent apart.

I’m filled with an even deeper appreciation for how our community has come together and adapted in real time this past year and a half—from our students and professors who seamlessly adjusted to remote teaching and learning, to our staff whose ingenuity and dedication made it all possible.

More than anything, I’m in awe of how each of you has risen to meet this very moment. It’s certainly easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the unprecedented global health challenges before us. But those challenges are the reason we’re all here—and precisely why we’re called to public health.

And from what I’ve witnessed this last year-plus, nothing has deterred you. Instead, you are motivated. You’ve chosen to run toward some of the greatest threats we face in today’s world—and you are poised to make a powerful impact and lasting contribution.

Look no further than what our community has accomplished just this summer and what initiatives we’ll be launching in the fall.

The Power of Partnerships

If there is one thing the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear, it’s that we must partner across sectors and disciplines to tackle both current and future public health crises. It is in that vein that we have pursued a number of cross-sectoral collaborations that will continue to put public health at the center of the global discourse, from the Apple Women’s Health Study to #FirstRespondersFirst to the COVID Collaborative.

Those efforts have continued this summer. Recognizing the need for urgent, sustained action to improve global health care in the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, in May the Harvard Chan School joined the Partnership for Central America, a U.S. initiative led by Vice President Kamala Harris that brings together prominent business and social sector leaders from around the globe. Earlier this year, I also became co-chair of the Reform for Resilience, an international alliance to make COVID-19 a catalyst for strengthening the global institutional commitment to a healthier and more resilient model of global growth.

To aid in both these efforts, we recently welcomed Patricia Geli to the Department of Global Health and Population as research scientist and executive director of the Reform for Resilience Commission’s North American Hub. Patricia, who joins us from the World Bank, will also play an essential role in guiding the School’s participation in the Partnership for Central America.

Clear Communications

One thing that the pandemic has made clear is the critical importance of strong public health communications, a vital truth embraced by our faculty, students, staff, and alumni. Over the course of this past academic year, our faculty consistently served as global thought leaders on issues such as how racial and economic inequities fueled unequal disease and vaccination outcomes; the need to combat vaccine hesitancy and misinformation; and the mental health impacts of the pandemic. Overall, our School received more than 46,000 media mentions over the past academic year, reaching more than 200 million people. I encourage you to take a few minutes to watch the video below, which captures the breadth and power of our faculty’s messaging over the past year.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=8AoP2yHlWGk%3Ffeature%3Doembed

This outreach could not have been accomplished without our outstanding Communications team, which hosted 82 press conferences over the course of the academic year, giving the press more ready access to our expert voices while also easing the burden on faculty members overwhelmed with press inquiries. These press conferences also helped position our School as the go-to resource for expert opinion and analysis around COVID-19; as Arthur Allen, editor at the Kaiser Family Foundation, put it in an email to one of our communications staff: “I find it passing strange that the CDC has passed its mantle to Harvard during this pandemic.”

To build upon this important work, we brought on two exciting staff hires ahead of the fall semester. Stephanie Simon joins us as the School’s inaugural vice dean for strategic communications, while Michael Fitzgerald comes in as the next editor-in-chief of Harvard Public Health magazine. Together, Stephanie and Michael will create a communications strategy for the School to expand its reach and elevate its impact as an indispensable voice in public health, including expanding our engagement with policy makers, the media, the business community, and the public at large.

New MPH and Certificate Programs

One of the rare positive developments to come out of these last 18 months has been the public’s increased interest in the field of public health. This became especially clear to us this spring when we saw a massive increase in applicants, with applications to the MPH in epidemiology program increasing 163 percent and overall applications increasing by more than 40 percent.

I can think of no better time, then, for us to be launching the new MPH Generalist degree program, a part-time, online program for working professionals who want to pursue an MPH degree to enhance their existing professional pursuits or to enter into a new career. Designed to be completed over two or three years, the cohort model program makes the MPH degree a more attainable goal for any student around the globe, and I am thrilled to welcome our inaugural cohort.

We also continue our work in launching two additional certificate programs, the Certificate in Public Health and Business Leadership and the Certificate in Global Nursing Leadership; both certificate programs are scheduled to launch in 2022. To that end, we have recently brought aboard Lumas Helaire as assistant dean for population health management and health equity education. He will join the teams building these exciting research and educational programs, partnering with faculty, staff, and administrators to help bring them to fruition.

Research, Faculty, and Staff Updates

Our School’s capacity to develop and fund an exceptionally wide range of cutting-edge research is the engine that has further driven public understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic. This summer alone, Harvard Chan researchers from the Africa Research, Implementation Science and Education (ARISE) Network released a new series of studies examining the effects of COVID-19 disruptions on health outcomes in sub-Saharan Africa and authored a new study that concluded thousands of COVID-19 cases and deaths in California, Oregon, and Washington may have been attributable to increases in fine particulate air pollution from wildfire smoke; the Harvard Chan C-CHANGE and Harvard Global Health Institute research teams also issued a report finding that substantial investments are needed to reduce the likelihood of pathogens spilling from wildlife to humans and triggering the next pandemic.

It has also been thrilling to see the hard work of our faculty recently recognized. Congratulations go to Marc Lipsitch, named the director of science at the CDC’s new Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics, and to postdoctoral fellow Rebecca Kahn, who will be the new center’s senior scientist. Albert Hofman was also named a Knight of the Order of the Lion of the Netherlands for exceptional service to the community; Nancy Krieger was appointed a member of the UNESCO International Scientific Committee for the Slave Route Project: Resistance, Liberty, Heritage; Michael Mina received a Massachusetts Life Sciences Center Award; and Tyler VanderWeele was announced as a fellow at the 7th World Congress of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA). I also encourage all of you to read the Science magazine feature highlighting Joe Allen’s work around indoor air quality.

We are delighted to welcome the following new faculty members to the School this fall:

In addition, I am so pleased to welcome back Muhammad Ali Pate, Julio Frenk Professor of Public Health Leadership in the Department of Global Health and Population, who rejoins us after a two-year hiatus while serving as the global director of health, nutrition and population and director of global financing facility with the World Bank Group in Washington, D.C.

Finally, I want to congratulate our Summer ACE Award winner Nitsan Garfinkel, lab manager in the Department of Molecular Metabolism, and honorable mention honoree Ali Armstrong, assistant director of finance in the Center for Health Decision Sciences. Congratulations to both!

Office of Diversity and Inclusion

As a part of the continued advancement of our diversity agenda at the School, a number of projects and activities have been outlined in the Foundations for Sustainable Progress and Transformation: An Inclusive Excellence Strategic Plan, 2021-2024 document. This document highlights a set of goals and objectives in three main priority areas: Leadership and Institutional Systems, Learning Culture at Harvard Chan, and Diversity of Our People & Their Success. Within these areas are several major initiatives that will be implemented in 2021-2022, including Unconscious Bias Training modules for students, staff, faculty, and academic appointees; the Diversity Facilitator Training Program to engage our school community members in diversity-based developmental activities; and the Racial Literacy Course Redesign Project, which will focus on course redesign with a critical race lens and racially inclusive learning experiences.

More information about these initiatives and additional activities, including how to register and get involved, will be shared by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion a little later this fall.

Philanthropy Matters

The necessity of public health has become increasingly clear, not just to our committed alumni, donors, and friends, but to the entire world. I am grateful to our donors who have invested generously to support these efforts, as we’ve seen an impressive 18 percent year-over-year increase in individual giving. As always, two of our highest fundraising priorities are increasing financial aid for our students—a category that saw an impressive 67 percent increase in gifts over last year—and endowing professorships for our exceptional faculty.

Two new projects for which we are seeking and receiving private philanthropic support were developed to address COVID-19 and designed to have scientific relevance well beyond the pandemic: CrisisReady will use digital data to inform epidemic preparedness and emergency response, and the Global Immunological Observatory will identify emerging viruses, recognize possible outbreaks, and inform the development of containment policies to address real-time disease realities.

Events Programming

The past academic year reflected another high-water mark in our Signature School Events programming. Continuing on the success of our August 2020 program with Drs. Anthony Fauci and Sanjay Gupta, we hosted two more events with Dr. Fauci; launched a new event series, Public Health Storytellers, to spotlight authors like Isabel Wilkerson who bring public health so vividly to life; and partnered with collaborators like Google Health, the American Cancer Society, and the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) to delve into issues surrounding adolescent mental health, racial inequities in health care, and vaccine hesitancy.

Our robust programming will continue this fall, kicking off on September 21 when the FXB Center will host a virtual symposium, “Anti-Racism in Public Health Policies, Practice, and Research.” In October, and in partnership with the World Health Organization, we will we launch a multi-part event series around climate change and health. More information about that series will be coming shortly.

**

Needless to say, we’re embarking on yet another challenging year—for our field and for people across the globe. So, I encourage you to carve out the space you need to care for your loved ones, for each other, and, just as importantly, for yourself.

I often think back to Toni Morrison’s 1988 commencement address at Sarah Lawrence, in which she talks about the “preamble to problem-solving”: dreaming. Before conceiving of solutions to the world’s problems, she calls on the graduates to first “dream the world as it ought to be.”

I ask you all to do the same.

In the most daunting moments, take time to reconnect with your why. What is your dream for humanity? What is the vision that drew you to this work in the first place?

I look forward to seeing you all in person in the days ahead and continuing our work together toward a world as it ought to be—one that is healthier and more just for all.

Sincerely,

Michelle

Michelle A Williams, ScD
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

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