From the Dean: Choosing the Right Road

From the Dean: Choosing the Right Road

For those engaged in public health work, the chase to make discoveries and solve problems is both invigorating and maddening. Public health is messy—it's unpredictable. But that is what draws us in.

By nature, we are sorters and organizers. We want to define the problem and then find better solutions to the problem. We seek to embed ourselves in the communities where we can make a difference. At our best, we aim to anticipate where problems might arise and prevent them from happening.

To operate at our optimal level, we cannot travel alone. In public health, our journeys require a collaborative spirit, a unified will, and a ceaseless empathy for people. It is hard not to think of Aristotle's "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" when reflecting on when public health is at its best.

As we will learn in this issue of Findings, Aristotle's words ring true, as does Cervantes's "it takes all kinds to make a world." There is no right or wrong way to discover public health and its incredible power (and duty) to change lives. The stories—and the people—who fill these pages will amaze you.

 

"The challenge that lays before us is how we work together to be more effective."

The unique personal experiences, acquired skills, and internal motivation that lead individuals to public health ensure they are the right person to be in public health. It seems illogical to concede "if you are in public health, you're meant to be here." It is a bit like saying "you must want Italian food because you now find yourself in an Italian restaurant." The logic seems slipshod.

But there is really no right or wrong way to get into public health. That can be puzzling for a scientist, which in part explains my own fascination with how I ended up in public health. Looking back, I began my studies with the notion that I would become a physician. As it turns out, some fateful detours paved a new road for me.

Everything I had learned about science during my studies was to "control the variable." But public health is about optimizing many, many variables simultaneously and without necessarily having any control over them. It can be a confounding lesson for someone like me, who grew up staring into a microscope and feeling rather at home in that setting.

One of the clearest routes to optimization is to collaborate. Here at Michigan, we believe in a fully interdisciplinary approach. We are in the carpool lane of health, as it were.

There is a collective drive to our mission. We must optimize health for the individual, and the family, and the neighborhood, and the community, and the region, and the nation, and the entire globe. There are many, many ways that we care for people's health—food safety, clean air, sewage systems, and vaccine programs to name a few. A discovery in one area might help fight a problem in another. We must always be looking out to the shifting landscape, searching for new routes.

When your life's work is about caring for people across the world, with people across the world, progress can be iterative. Once in a while, we get to leap. But frequently it's a slow, steady, dogged search for the truth as the data leads us to it.

Herein lies the dynamic challenge of public health work: Whether we are marching or leaping, not everyone else is traveling down the same road toward optimal health at the same velocity. Disparities emerge no matter how perfect the road you have charted.

Even if I create the best solution to a problem, not everyone has access to it. There are economic and geographic impediments in place. This is what makes public health an invigorating and maddening discipline.

Our shared responsibility is embodied in the policies we influence and create. We must partner with communities, health authorities, the public sector and the private sector, and we must lead better decision making. We must be the drivers of our interdisciplinary approach.

And the impact of our approach? We must lead inexorably toward shared responsibility and governance.

The challenge that lays before us—now more than ever—is how we work together to be more effective. Not just in the science, not just in building the body of evidence, but in convincing people who are not experts—but who have the power to make decisions—that there is a better way. As we close our 75th year, this is of paramount importance.

Each time we reach the edge of the horizon, the road extends further out in front of us—twisting in new and perhaps unpredictable ways. We must continually ask ourselves, "Where are we going, and why?" That will keep us pointed in the right direction and committed to the right objectives.

Gazing down the road, we must look forward and continue striving to be in the right place, with the right people, ahead of time.

Read about We Are Public Health >>

Martin Philbert
Dean and Professor of Toxicology