From the Dean: Working Together

From the Dean: Working Together

Most of us are where we are today in part due to relationships during our educations or early in our careers when a senior colleague sparked a particular interest in us or guided us in how to achieve an objective. In my own case, I count two senior colleagues as mentors (although we never employed the word mentor back then). The first was my Ph.D. dissertation advisor, Dick Nelson, a talented and productive scholar who always found time to work with his students. Whenever I turned in a dissertation chapter draft, I would find myself meeting with him, within two days, to review his incredibly detailed, thoughtful, and always constructive comments. Dick was the consummate academic, a role model to which I could aspire while knowing that I would never quite achieve a comparable level of dedication and excellence. I am convinced that my relationships with students over the years were shaped to a significant degree by his unintended tutelage.

My second mentor was Vic Fuchs, one of the originators of the field of health economics and, still today, one of its most insightful contributors. In the 1970s, while running the National Bureau of Economic Research branch at Stanford, Vic had a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to bring a promising junior health economist to the NBER. I had the privilege of being that junior economist in 1975–76, just three years after landing at Michigan to begin my career. I would never have had a successful research career had it not been for that year. I had not mastered the research process in graduate school, nor had I developed an appreciation of what it can accomplish. Under Vic's tutelage, I developed that appreciation and even a love for research, essential to career-long success. Vic's approach was quite different from Dick's. My project colleagues and I met infrequently with him, and when we did, the experience was the academic version of "tough love." Yet those meetings were always educational, teaching me not only specific research methods but also the process of collaborative (team) research. I left the NBER the coauthor of my first article in the New England Journal of Medicine and with drafts of what became my first two papers on tobacco policy. Now in his 80s, Vic is a cherished colleague and revered friend whom I visit whenever business takes me to Palo Alto.

I have had the privilege of mentoring superb students and junior colleagues. The most important has been David Mendez, whom I met in 1993 when I hired him to do the computer modeling in a new research project. Then a doctoral student, David became intrigued with public health while working on this project and could readily appreciate the application of his operations research skills to the field. After completing his Ph.D., he was awarded a Paul Cornely postdoctoral fellowship at SPH. He was then appointed in the Department of Health Management and Policy where he is now a tenured associate professor. A superb teacher, David has developed a reputation as one of the leading simulation modelers working in the area of tobacco control. We have both benefited from working together. I believe that I helped David "find his way" in the field of public health, and I know that working with him has greatly enriched my own research. Our collaboration has allowed me to engage in an exciting and very productive line of research that I never could have achieved had I been limited to my own skill set.

Relationships with scores of colleagues have defined my career. Today, for example, working with an incredibly talented, productive, and congenial group of dean's office colleagues and department chairs allows me to enjoy the job of dean. I have long worked with a network of tobacco policy research colleagues from multiple states and from countries ranging from the U.K. to Australia, from India to South Africa. Professional meetings and modern communications technologies overcome the physical distances that separate us. We are a tight group, with deep friendships having formed from working relationships that in several cases date back 25 years.

Institutionally, relationships increasingly define how and where we work. An important contemporary example of the "how" within the University of Michigan is the collaboration among 14 schools and colleges, led by SPH, in developing the new UM Center for Global Health. The center's first major new activity, co-directed by professors from SPH and the Medical School in partnership with investigators at the University of Ghana, Kwame Nukrumah University of Science and Technology, and the Ghanaian Ministry of Health, aims to improve human resources for health in that country. Ultimately the project should involve UM colleagues from at least half a dozen schools and colleges.

In this issue of Findings you will read about the exciting new exchange program we've established with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Tianjin (TJCDC), China. This past spring I joined Associate Dean for Practice Matt Boulton in Tianjin for the grand opening of the Tianjin branch of the SPH Practice Office. This summer three SPH students serving their internships at TJCDC occupied the beautiful, large corner office dedicated to our practice program. This partnership will enhance training and research opportunities for UM students and faculty, as well as colleagues in TJCDC, several of whom are visiting SPH for periods of three months under Dr. Boulton's guidance.

In January Professor Mark Wilson and I traveled to Belgaum, Karnataka, India to assist colleagues at KLE University in developing their new Institute of Public Health. Until very recently, India has had no formal educational institutions devoted to public health. Our visit culminated in the preparation of a memorandum of understanding that will lead to faculty and student exchanges between the two institutions, fostering development of an academic dimension to public health in India while enriching our rapidly growing educational and research endeavors in other countries.

In today's world, with the growing interdependence of everything from academic disciplines to countries' welfare, it has become increasingly important that we work together. Successful collaborations may emerge by chance, as they have often in my professional life. But whether planned or serendipitous, they demand thoughtful cultivation—a key to every relationship mentioned in this column—and the harvesting of lessons learned. I am a better teacher and scholar today because of what I have extracted from my experiences with mentors, students, and colleagues. We are a better school of public health because, collectively, we have worked to maximize the fruits of existing relationships and to apply that knowledge to the evolution of new relationships for the future.

-Kenneth E. Warner


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"I am a better teacher and scholar today because of what I have extracted from my experiences with mentors, students, and colleagues."