Building the Science of Population Health

Alumni and faculty mentors of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars program continue their pursuit of interdisciplinary population health research, contributing to the important and maturing field of population health science.

The Issue

Population health science integrates knowledge, theory, and tools from multiple disciplines to understand and address the mechanisms through which health and health disparities are produced across populations. Training programs that prepare individuals to develop and apply evidence from population health science to improve health are, and have been, in short supply.  

Program Background

From 2003 to 2016, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars (HSS) program trained early-career researchers in diverse disciplines—including sociology, epidemiology, psychology, economics, city planning, history, neuroscience, and anthropology—to become leaders in population health science. Over the course of the program, 193 scholars were trained at six sites: Columbia University, Harvard University, the University of California, San Francisco/Berkeley, the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Wisconsin.

Lessons Learned

Faculty, scholars, and program staff identified factors essential to the program’s success that may prove helpful to others planning training programs in population health:

  • Cohorts of Scholars. Scholars interacted with each other and with faculty who had similar interests but different backgrounds, often sparking new ways of thinking.
  • Mentorship. Intensive mentoring by senior interdisciplinary researchers proved invaluable to scholars. Mentors received support and encouraged mentees to follow their own career trajectory as independent researchers.
  • Curriculum. Each site developed its own curriculum. All sites provided a population health seminar that explored key topics from multiple disciplinary perspectives. Otherwise, didactic classroom work was kept to a minimum.
  • Research and Training Funds. These funds supported the research of current faculty and scholars. Creative uses of the funds raised the visibility of population health research at the host universities.
  • Flexibility. Faculty developed the program alongside RWJF staff, making the program dynamic enough to meet the changing needs of its scholars. This allowed an individualized approach while encouraging sharing across sites of practices that worked well.  
  • University Culture and Structure. An environment supportive of interdisciplinary research and the cooperation of senior university officials was critical for a program that might otherwise be viewed as risky or unproven.
  • Stipend. This factor was cited by some as a strength and others as a weakness. An extraordinarily high stipend (approaching $90,000 in later years) attracted candidates who had many fellowship options. For some scholars, their next job would pay less than their HSS stipend.

Areas that proved challenging and offered opportunities for improvement were mentioned also, among them:

  • Program Length. Two years seemed too short a time to develop an interdisciplinary health scholar.  
  • Disciplinary Diversity. The program was successful in attracting faculty and scholars with different academic backgrounds but was underrepresented in the biological sciences and mathematics.
  • Domestic Focus. Some scholars were inhibited by RWJF’s preference for domestic work.
  • Sustainability and Spread. The Foundation supported HSS for 13 years, far fewer years than many of its signature human capital programs. A longer period of support could have helped achieve a critical mass of trained scholars.

Conclusion

The program has had a profound effect for the scholars trained, and the faculty and universities that participated. Some site directors expanded their own interdisciplinary research agendas or entered the public policy arena. Host universities that saw the successful model of cross-discipline collaborations are now more receptive to such approaches. Scholars will go on to mentor other young researchers interested in population health and in producing evidence that can be used to reduce health disparities and prevent disease.