During her tenure as administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Christine Todd Whitman came in for her share of controversy—especially when she chose to delay new regulations on arsenic levels in water in order to get a better risk assessment of the available data. “What that experience reinforced in me was the fact that when you’re setting public policy, insisting on solid risk-assessment data carries its own set of risks, and you’ve got to be very careful when you’re communicating that to the public,” she told listeners at the school’s 2007 Bernstein Symposium on nanotechnology and health. In her keynote, the former New Jersey governor said that new technologies such as nanotechnology hold immense promise “for improving the quality of people’s lives,” but they also pose challenges. “Because unless people understand how to really measure and evaluate the risk that accompanies any new technology, we run a greater risk—that progress will be thwarted by the very fear of anything new.”
The task of shaping policy was on the mind of former Detroit mayor Dennis Archer when he dropped by SPH in January to chat with students about the health challenges facing the nation. “You give someone good health, you can start all over,” Archer said. “If you’ve got poor health, it becomes a burden to our society.” He urged students to “find a way to give back. Find a way to reach out to others.”
Some students are doing that already. Among the 37 University of Michigan students to receive 2007–08 Fulbright awards were three from SPH: Sean Armstrong, who’s working to increase community participation in wellness campaigns in rural Mongolia; Heather Lanthorn, who is addressing the challenges of caring for and coping with diabetes in the slums of Chennai, India; and Elizabeth Wiley, who is studying alternatives to institutional care of the elderly in Norway. Michigan produced more student Fulbright winners last year than any other American university.
With support from a UM Ginsberg Center fellowship, SPH alumna and current UM nursing student Danielle Buechler has drawn on knowledge she gained at SPH to develop a low-tech evaluation tool for the staff of a health and education nonprofit organization in Humjibre, Ghana. Last summer, Buechler and fellow SPH alumna Bhavna Sivanand went to Ghana to test the instrument, which lets staff members evaluate programs dealing with mother and child health, teens and sex education, malaria, and more. Buechler, who’s been involved in community service since she was five, wanted to create a sustainable solution for the Ghana-based NGO. She says the evaluation tool is “like a flow chart meets a wacky Mad Lib” and calls it “an accumulation of everything I have ever learned.”
Back in the U.S., SPH community partner Anne Rolfes and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which Rolfes founded in 2000, continue to test soil and air samples and to amass data demonstrating the link between contaminants and a multitude of health problems in and around New Orleans, many of them stemming from Hurricane Katrina. Their work will be easier thanks to a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leader award, which Rolfes and her group received last year. The award brings $105,000 to support programs. The SPH Michigan Center for Public Health Preparedness and its director, JoLynn Montgomery, nominated Rolfes for the award. For more on the Bucket Brigade visit labucketbrigade.org.
Whenever he finds his spirits flagging, SPH Professor Emeritus David Schottenfeld has only to glance at the John Snow Award on his office wall. The bright metal plaque—which features an image of Snow and the pump where the London epidemiologist famously diagnosed the source of a cholera epidemic in 1854—“kind of shines out at me,” Schottenfeld says. The Epidemiology Section of the American Public Health Association gave the award, its highest honor, to Schottenfeld last November. He says he was especially proud to receive the award because its first recipient, back in 1975, was Abraham Lilienfeld, Schotten-feld’s mentor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. It was Lilienfeld who steered Schottenfeld away from medicine and toward a distinguished career in cancer epidemiology and prevention. “That was the epiphany of my life, working with him,” Schottenfeld remembers. “He was a bigger-than-life person for our discipline.”
Photo by Leslie Stainton
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WEB UPDATE: In March 2008, UM SPH's newly organized Students Against Secondhand Smoke and their advisor Jen Martin (left) visited with Michigan state senators in Lansing, including Senator Liz Brater (D-Ann Arbor, center), to urge passage of legislation to make Michigan smokefree. (Photo by Suzanne Caterino)
Spurred into action by a course they took last fall with Clifford Douglas, executive director of the University of Michigan Tobacco Research Network, Christiana Shoushtari and 11 of her SPH classmates are working to pass legislation in Michigan that would ban smoking in most workplaces, including restaurants and bars. The Michigan House of Representatives passed HB 4163 last year, and the bill is in committee in early 2008 before going to the Senate floor.
In testimony before the House last year, SPH Dean Ken Warner urged passage of the bill; he plans to brief both the Senate and the Wolverine Caucus in 2008. Shoushtari and her classmates say they want to translate classroom learning into “real-world, hands-on experience” by lobbying, holding information sessions for Michigan citizens, and doing media outreach. The school’s director of government relations, Jenifer Martin, is teaching the students how to engage with policymakers, and Terri Mellow, SPH communications director, is advising them on effective op-ed writing.
For Shoushtari, the bottom line on this issue is “secondhand smoke. It’s not just harming yourself, it’s harming those around you. It’s the workers in these environments, it’s children who don’t have a say.”