New EHS Chair Brings Big Ideas

New EHS Chair Brings Big Ideas

Before he left Harvard for Michigan, Howard Hu checked the stats. The average winter temperature in Ann Arbor, he found, is only 1.5 degrees colder than in Boston, and Ann Arbor gets less snow. “But it does have on average 12 more cloudy days than Boston,” Hu noted one overcast October day as he sat in his sixth-floor office in the School of Public Health’s new Crossroads and Tower building.

Far more persuasive than the weather, though, was the chance to chair the SPH Department of Environmental Health Sciences, a department Hu believes has huge potential. “With a new dean, a new building, and a number of faculty retirements coming up, it’s a wonderful opportunity to build a department positioned for the 21st century,” he says.

It’s the kind of professional leadership opportunity Hu had been thirsting for, so in late July he and his wife of 13 years, Rani Kotha, and their son, Krishna, traded the Atlantic for the Great Lakes and the Red Sox for the Tigers.

“I take credit for Detroit going to the World Series,” Hu grins. “After all, Boston did it two years ago.”

He’s even more excited about his new job. The University of Michigan excels in interdisciplinary research, he says, “and my real talent is pulling people from many different disciplines together and harnessing their ideas and energy.”

At Harvard, he collaborated on several multidisciplinary research and teaching projects and founded the Metals Epidemiology Research Group (MERG), which conducts NIH– and EPA–funded multidisciplinary human-population studies around the world. Findings from MERG studies have led to new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for adults exposed to lead and for lead exposures in pregnant women, Hu notes proudly.

He’ll continue to direct MERG at Michigan, in collaboration with a co-director at Harvard and colleagues at other institutions, but his primary goal here is to build EHS into a major power. He’s currently overseeing four faculty searches and will spearhead efforts to attract significant new research support from the National Institutes for Health for studies that are “more health-outcome oriented. We need funding packages that get at big problems.

“This is also a terrific place to build the next generation of interdisciplinary training programs for graduates and postdocs,” Hu says. In conjunction with the School of Natural Resources and Environment, he’d like to create a course on “Human Health and Global Environmental Change” that can attract graduate students from a range of disciplines as well as “our smartest undergraduates.”

He’s also committed to strengthening existing departmental attributes, notably its Center for Risk Science and Commu-nication, which recently conducted a dioxin-exposure study in Michigan’s Tittabawassee flood plain, and the long-running National Institute for Occu-pational Safety and Health educational research center. Hu wants to expand the department’s nutrition program, too, into a world-class nutrition research and training program.

Meanwhile, he and his family are liking life in Ann Arbor. Kotha is deputy director of Global Health Programs at SPH, and Krishna is in middle school. Although both Hu and Kotha grew up in the northeast—he in New York City and New Jersey, she in upstate New York—they welcome the openness and ease of the Midwest, or what Hu calls “the smooth elbows instead of sharp elbows.”

Earlier this fall, they went to their first football game in the Big House. By comparison to Harvard Stadium, Hu says, “it was awesome. And awe-inspiring.” What’s more, the sun was shining.

Photo by Peter Smith.

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