PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Each year, the American Public Health Association convenes National Public Health Week to spark conversation and call attention to the issues most affecting the health of Americans across the nation.
From April 2 to 6, members of the Brown community and beyond can participate in a lineup of events as the School of Public Health celebrates this year’s National Public Health Week and its theme: “Healthiest Nation 2030: Changing our Future Together.” Events range from art exhibitions, healthy cooking demonstrations and career panels to a showcase of the school’s research at Public Health Research Day on April 5.
Bess Marcus — a leading scholar in health behavior changes who returned to Brown from the University of California San Diego to become School of Public Health dean in November — says the diverse schedule of events will highlight Brown’s research strengths and partnerships through the lens of some of the most pressing public health challenges we face today.
In advance of the week’s kickoff, we asked Marcus to share a few insights from her early months as dean.
Q: You returned to Brown last November and have now led the School of Public Health for four months. What have you learned about the school, its students and faculty, and its campus and community partners?
Since arriving last November, I have re-learned that Brown and the School of Public Health are welcoming and collaborative communities with joint endeavors on campus, in Rhode Island, across the nation and around the world. Collectively, we shape health policy, fight pandemics, strengthen services for those with intellectual disabilities, improve care for the frail and elderly, and work on much more, through a lens of social justice and health.
The School of Public Health continues to add new students, faculty and areas of inquiry such as mindfulness and environmental health. I see my job as ensuring that our traditional strengths — on important issues including addiction, aging and HIV research — remain strong, while nurturing the areas in which we are good to the points that they become great.
I continue to meet with colleagues in the Rhode Island Department of Health and others in local government to further our collaborations. There are also great partnership opportunities for the School of Public Health with the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society and the Warren Alpert Medical School, as well as the School of Engineering, the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, and the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship. Together with these partnerships, we can make an impact on pressing health issues that face the most vulnerable populations.
Q: What public health issues facing our country and world stand out as most urgent to you?
The spread of disease knows no borders. But one of the largest public health challenges also facing the global population is the spread of the Western diet. Characterized by overconsumption of refined sugars, salt and saturated fat, our fast-food lifestyle has swept around the world, endangering population health and well-being via diabetes, hypertension, obesity and other debilitating conditions
The science is clear that climate change is another serious threat to human health. The public health community plays a critical role in developing strong climate change strategies and interventions that protect human health. The School of Public Health has a team of faculty and students in the Center for Environmental Health and Technology, who are dedicated to finding answers to questions about how to mitigate the climatic factors and environmental chemicals that affect human health.
Q: In what ways are Brown’s scientists and students partnering with others to reduce opioid abuse and addiction, which is finally gaining recognition as a public health crisis?
Opioid overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in Rhode Island. The good news is that School of Public Health faculty have recently shown that medication-assisted treatment reduces overdose death. Rhode Island is a national leader in this area, providing medication for every opioid-dependent incarcerated individual in the state. This program led to a 61 percent decrease in post-incarceration deaths from overdose.
The faculty leading this work are members of Governor Raimondo’s Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force. Members of the task force also helped create PreventOverdoseRI.org. This website is a national model, providing resources to those in need, keeping the public informed and aggregating data so that policy leaders and researchers have the latest information on the crises in our state.
Q: A core value of the School of Public Health is to advance health as a right for all, with a special emphasis on vulnerable and marginalized populations. How is the school helping to bridge gaps created by health inequities?
A deep understanding of the interconnected nature of our world and our social consciousness motivate our work to address the needs of the most vulnerable. There is an obvious ethical component to meeting the kinds of needs many of us take for granted in the U.S. — clean drinking water, basic sanitation and fundamental nutrition. A few examples among our faculty: Caroline Kuo is applying a resilience-oriented, family-based approach to preventing HIV among South African adolescents, while Chanelle Howe and Akilah Dulin-Keita are examining the role of resilience among African Americans living with HIV in the U.S.
Q: As a behavioral scientist, you study health conditions related to physical inactivity — obesity, heart disease and diabetes, for example. Why has physical inactivity reached such epidemic proportions in many American communities?
We need to make the healthy choice the easy choice. And we need to embrace this approach at a variety of levels, whether it’s our food choices or opportunities for physical activity. Despite the well-documented benefits of walking, we — as a nation — need to walk more and make our communities more walkable. That’s why I fully support the strategies for increasing walking and walkability, outlined just two weeks ago in a plan released by the National Physical Activity Plan Alliance.
Q: The theme of National Public Health Week is “to create the healthiest nation in one generation.” How is the School of Public Health preparing students to contribute to this mission over the long term?
Our students learn public health by doing public health. So their work engenders real optimism in the future. They are learning the theories and the best methods, but they are also engaging with real public health questions. They work with actual data and in real agencies, so they can see the positive impact their work has on communities, even if it is very incremental. Our students are aware of the public health challenges we face, but they are confident that they can make positive contributions because they are prepared to tackle these challenges with real world experience.
In Rhode Island, we are blessed to work with informative and inspirational community partners, such as colleagues at the Rhode Island Department of Health. Such partners provide us with a statewide perspective on public health matters, such as opioid addiction. Whether in classrooms and laboratories, or across the state, we collaborate to conduct work that is methodologically rigorous, socially responsible and strategically informed. I look forward to more opportunity for our students and faculty to benefit from such close partnerships.