From the Dean: The Acid Test

From the Dean: The Acid Test

I had been on the faculty of the School of Public Health for a couple of years when, in the late 1990s, I was asked to be part of a new interdisciplinary center aimed at developing interventions to improve the lives of children with asthma—a disease that disproportionately affects the poor and vulnerable. As a toxicologist, my role was to use molecular imaging techniques to look at the distribution of nerves in the bronchus. This was the sort of bench science I’d long been accustomed to doing, working in the relative isolation of my lab and publishing the results in peer-reviewed journals. But the center opened my eyes to a new way of working—and taught me that the power of public health lies in our collective ability to effect meaningful change.

The center’s work was community-based and participatory and entailed the collaborative efforts of not only SPH researchers in health behavior and health education, environmental sciences, and pathology, but also of patients, family, clinical professionals, and school personnel in metro Detroit. At the time there were few studies illustrating causal effects between indoor air pollution and asthma prevalence, and our work—both basic and applied—contributed to a foundation of evidence that ultimately influenced federal and local policies aimed at reducing asthma prevalence.

This is the kind of research to which we now routinely refer as “translational,” and it’s why I am so passionate about public health. From bench to trench, the work we do changes lives and reduces the burden of the world’s suffering. I can’t think of a more compelling calling.

This school has a deep tradition of working for social justice and the right to health. Our faculty, students, and graduates have long been engaged in efforts to increase access to health care for children and the poor and to ensure that those who need care receive it by the most effective and affordable means possible. In this issue of Findings, you’ll read about SPH graduates who are working to ensure the safety and health of refugees seeking political asylum in the United States and to alleviate the suffering of people in the Western hemisphere’s most impoverished nation. You’ll learn about 85-year-old alumnus Hillel Shuval, who together with SPH Professor Emeritus Hosny Mancy, an Egyptian, has spent decades promoting health, peace, and equitable water rights in the Middle East.

In recent years, SPH partnerships have helped foster social and environmental justice in communities as disparate as Durban, South Africa, and the Mam Mayan community in western Guatemala. SPH research in health policy has touched the lives of millions—and informed both federal and international health law aimed at preventing and treating chronic disease. In a classic example of translational research, SPH biostatisticians and epidemiologists are deploying new technologies to understand why certain cancers afflict some populations more than others.

Much remains to be done, of course, if we are to effectively understand and address the complex interactions that cause vulnerable populations to suffer disproportionately from the impacts of poverty, poor nutrition, exposure to environmental contaminants and disasters, and human violence. The 30th anniversary this year of the identification of HIV/AIDS is a sobering reminder of the scope and difficulty of the challenges we must confront.

But I am deeply hopeful for the future. The tools that we have available to us today hold immense promise for innovations that can help solve some of our most intractable health problems. Already, SPH researchers are using mobile technologies to help lower the incidence of obesity in this country and new advances in molecular biology to understand why tuberculosis is as much a disease of poverty as of biology.

Ultimately, the acid test for all of us who work in public health—whether in the laboratory or in a neighborhood community center, online or in a health agency halfway around the world—must be whether we have made a difference in the lives of our fellow human beings. As this issue of Findings attests, many members of the SPH community can answer yes. I am honored to be part of such a talented and distinguished body of scholars and practitioners—women and men whose collective talents and abilities will have as great, or greater, an impact on human health and well-being as we have since the inception of public health at this university more than a century ago.

-Martin Philbert

Send correspondence about this or any Findings article to the editor at sph.findings@umich.edu. You will be contacted if your letter is considered for publication.

A New Dean

Before becoming dean of the School of Public Health in January, Martin Philbert spent six years as the school’s senior associate dean for research and facilities. The latter part of that job meant Philbert got to know the SPH complex in ways that few do—all 450,000+ square feet of it. The places that intrigue him most, he says, are the hidden ones, in part because they epitomize public health. “The really important things in the school—much like public health—are out of view. We take for granted, for example, that the air coming in is filtered and at the appropriate temperature. That when you turn on a faucet, clean potable water is going to come out. That lab hoods will function properly, and safety systems will work. I’ll wager a bet that a tiny fraction of the people who live and work in SPH know where all those systems are. Those are my favorite places, because those have to work. Without them, the building is useless. Public health is frequently as unnoticeable and equally indispensable.”

Philbert served as interim director of the UM Center for Risk Science and Communication from 2004 to 2010. He came to UM in 1995 from Rutgers’ Neurotoxicology Laboratories, where he was a research assistant professor. He is nationally recognized for his expertise in neurotoxicology and experimental neuropathology. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in 1984 from the College of Arts and Technology in Cambridge, United Kingdom, and his doctorate from the London University Royal Postgraduate Medical School in London, U.K., in 1987.