Faces of Public Health: Q&A with Lynn Goldman, The George Washington University

Apr 11, 2014, 11:28 AM


Last month The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. announced three gifts totaling $80 million for the university’s School of Public Health and public health initiatives from the Milken Institute, the Sumner M. Redstone Charitable Foundation and the Milken Family Foundation. The public health graduate school is now called the Milken Institute School of Public Health and the university has also established the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness. Redstone is the executive chairman of Viacom and CBS Corp., while Michael Milken is an entrepreneur.

The gifts include:

  • $40 million from the Milken Institute to support new and ongoing research and scholarships
  • $30 million from the Sumner M. Redstone Charitable Foundation to develop and advance innovative strategies to expand wellness and the prevention of disease
  • $10 million from the Milken Family Foundation to support the Milken Institute School dean’s office, including a newly created public health scholarship program

NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Lynn Goldman, MD, MS, MPH, and dean of the School of Public Health, about the impact of the gifts for the school and the public’s health both globally and in the United States.

NewPublicHealth: What changes will the recent gifts bring to the school?

Lynn Goldman: It’s no exaggeration to say the gift is transformational for our school. We have the opportunity to recruit the best talent in the country to work with our school, whether that might be students through the increase that we’ve received in scholarship funding or faculty members, and we have the opportunity to support our current faculty to be able to take their work to the next level.

It also allows us to establish the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness, which is a very exciting enterprise. We recently announced that William Dietz, MD, MPH, formerly the director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), will be the first director of the Redstone Center. The initial focus of the Center will be childhood obesity. That is so exciting because Dietz was doing research on childhood obesity well before that became the flavor of the month. It has been his lifelong mission to prevent childhood obesity, and what we are charged to do with this center is to very directly engage in efforts that will result in reducing the rates of obesity in the United States and globally. The way we are going to be doing that is by bringing together the evidence that people are generating about efforts that are working and also efforts that are not working, and be able to sift through that research. I think Bill is the perfect person to be the leader of an effort such as this because he is very collaborative, and we want to do this in a collaborative fashion.

NPH: How has your own previous work in pediatrics, epidemiology and the environment impacted your work as dean of the School of Public Health?

Goldman: I chose those topics to focus on because I became very interested in going upstream to the factors in people’s lives that are causing poor health, and in doing what I can to be involved with prevention—whether prevention of environmental exposures or prevention of obesity from poor diets or inadequate exercise or prevention when it comes to ceasing smoking and dealing with unhealthy stress that our communities live under. When I was first considering studying public health I settled on environmental health probably largely because I had grown up in the Texas Gulf Coast area, which was a place that was highly polluted and where, at that time when I was a kid, the National Cancer Institute was publishing these cancer maps showing really high levels of cancer mortality in that area. I became fascinated with that idea that you could be dying at a higher rate from cancer solely on the basis of where you live.

Becoming dean is actually my fourth career. My first career was in public health, working for the state health department in California. By the end of the time that I was there I had a division in public health that was called the Division of Environmental and Occupational Disease Control managing the work of about 300 people who were involved with epidemiology, toxicology and laboratory science, all focused on environmental health but also tracking the impact of environmental diseases on birth defects and cancer. We were responsible for the birth defects registry for the state of California, and we were responsible for parts of the statewide cancer tracking efforts.

After that, I had a second career at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as assistant administrator for an office there that’s responsible for regulating chemicals and pesticides now called the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. That moved me into a much larger management role where I had 1,300 employees and $100 million in funding and national responsibility for two major environmental statutes, The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and the Toxic Substances Control Act and some other smaller chemical spills.

That was a fun job and it was also very challenging, and when I left I went to the Johns Hopkins University for a third career as a college professor. That was the first time I was a professor, and I learned about teaching and managing courses. And, at the beginning, in a way it was the strangest thing in the world to go from a world where there were 1,300 in my group and I was surrounded by people and bombarded by phone calls and information all the time, to being a professor where initially at least I was quite solitary, and it’s all about creating it on your own. It was really fun being a professor, and what I did there was to create two research centers, the Center for Emergency Preparedness and Response, which was a Department of Homeland Security funded center, as well as the National Center for the Study of Preparedness and Catastrophic Event Response, which involves building the resilience of communities to disaster through a number of mechanisms including community resilience. We had a project that was trying to strengthen the role of faith-based communities called—one of my favorite project names—Pastors in Disasters.

And at Hopkins I also worked with our National Children Studies Center, which was a huge research effort in collaboration with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to do developmental work for the National Children’s Study.

And then, now I’m in my fourth career. I’ve been here since August of 2010. I’m serving as the dean, and I feel as if in a way this is the culmination of a long career committed to public health and prevention. I’ve developed a real love for teaching and for the process of producing a new generation of public health professionals.

I feel very close to the faculty here because many of them, like me, have had the same kind of career. I think in many schools of public health that you have faculty who are academics, who are scientists, who are experts in very technical aspects of public health and have had some service in their career, have been a health officer, have worked in an agency, have worked for a foundation. We do see, I think, more of our people in public health going back and forth between the academic community and the real world than in many other professions. And we actually try to run this school in a way that it’s conducive to that. We bring many of our faculty members straight here from working in government and many who go back to government after being here for a few years.

NPH: What are the specific benefits to students having their campus in Washington, D.C.?

Goldman: A key thing is that there are hundreds of internship opportunities. That’s pretty amazing. We are in the nerve center of the country in terms of health policy, and the students definitely are in the catbird seat for being able to see what’s happening on that stage and often to be actors on that stage. Many of our students wind up in very important roles in health policy in government and in nonprofits based in Washington, D.C.

We also are in very close in proximity to many important global health agencies, including the Pan-American Health Organization, which is the regional arm of the World Health Organization, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). We collaborate very closely with them. We work with the World Bank, and we also are very closely aligned with the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

Washington, D.C. itself is a wonderful community for people who are studying public health, but not always because of the lofty agencies and organizations here. There are tremendous health disparities here. We have worked very closely with the District of Columbia on important issues such as HIV/AIDS, which has very high rates in the District of Columbia, the highest among any of the states and territories of the country. We have also worked with them on the extraordinarily high rates of infant mortality in D.C., as well as the high rates of cancer, access to care for cancer and other chronic diseases in the district. All of these things are important issues for us to engage in as a school and, in fact, we not only have students who are placed out there doing practicums and other work, but many of our students are actually volunteering in community organizations in D.C. to help to be a part of the solution to many of these important public health problems.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.