Virtual Class Reunion: 1984
Twenty-five years ago, in that most Orwellian of years, Apple introduced the first Macintosh, Torvill and Dean won gold in Sarajevo (remember Bolero?), and during a voice check for a radio broadcast, United States President Ronald Reagan joked that he’d just signed legislation outlawing Russia “forever. We begin bombing in 5 minutes.” Word of Reagan’s remark later leaked to the public, and the Soviet East Army was placed on alert for 30 minutes.
That same year, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler announced that researchers had isolated the virus that caused AIDS and said she expected a test capable of detecting the virus with “essentially 100 percent certainty” would soon be available. By the end of 1984, the number of AIDS cases in the U.S. had risen to nearly 8,000, with more than 3,000 deaths.
At the University of Michigan School of Public Health, AIDS expert June E. Osborn, MD, began her tenure as dean; the On Job/On Campus program expanded to include two new degree programs; and a talented young biostatistician named Michael Boehnke came to SPH as an assistant professor. He and his wife, Betsy Foxman, who subsequently joined the SPH epidemiology faculty, remember being taken aback by the rituals of football Saturdays. “All the phone booths on Main Street had block-Ms on them,” Foxman says.
Boehnke recalls another ritual—daily lunches with his colleagues on the biostatistics faculty, organized by then-chair Morton Brown. “We usually went to the League or to Markley cafeteria,” Boehnke remembers. “The food wasn’t very good, but what was wonderful was the opportunity for everybody to interact. For a new faculty member, it was a chance to socialize, and also a chance to talk about science and statistics.” It was also in 1984 that Boehnke, who specializes in genetic research, met a new UM faculty member named Francis Collins, who would go on to head the Human Genome Project and is now director of the National Institutes of Health. He and Boehnke began working together in the 1980s, and “we’ve been collaborating ever since,” says Boehnke.
Nearly 250 students received degrees from SPH in 1984, among them Polly Paulson, MPH ’84, who subsequently became involved in HIV prevention work and is now the sexual health educator at the Student Health Services at the University of California, Davis. Paulson says her favorite memory from SPH is “listening to Marshall Becker [pictured above] talk about his fear of flying, and making a connection—which escapes me now—to the Health Belief Model. He was hilarious.”
Classmate Amy Sheon, MPH ’84, also became “deeply concerned” about the then-emerging global HIV epidemic following her graduation from SPH, and wound up getting a PhD in public health at Johns Hopkins with a dissertation that focused on assessing the social and ethical dimensions of HIV vaccination trials. Sheon has worked for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, started three new public health programs at UM (where her husband became VP and General Counsel in 1998), and for the past three years has worked to build an obesity prevention program at the nonprofit Altarum Institute. Throughout her career, Sheon says she has benefited from both the “excellent mentoring” she received from SPH faculty and the school’s extensive alumni network. “I try to ‘pay it forward’ through mentoring new students and donating to scholarship programs and encourage my fellow alumni to do the same,” she writes.
Even though she’s not technically a part of the class of 1984, Terri Wright, MPH ’83, called to share her memories of SPH in the early ’80s, when she formed “an incredible lifelong bond” with several classmates, and took the first steps toward a “very successful and rewarding career” in public health. “I know unequivocally that where I am today is directly tied to being a UM SPH alumna,” says Wright, a program director for the Kellogg Foundation and a PhD student at SPH. “Every job that I have had has had a Michigan relationship. It’s a powerful institution, and I don’t hear my friends from Harvard or North Carolina or Yale or Hopkins talk about a bond like the one we have coming out of Michigan. There’s something in that Michigan water!”