Brown's School of Public Health Emerges as Center for Pandemic Leadership

The school's dean and shining star Dr. Ashish Jha offers insight on policy, vaccination, and the school’s rapid expansion

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Until recently, most people didn’t know that the Brown University School of Public Health (BPSPH) was headquartered on South Main Street upstairs from Hemenway’s, but over the last year, it has become a national center of pandemic leadership. We’ve grown accustomed to hearing from Dr. Megan Ranney, Director of Brown-Lifespan Center for Digital Health, and the school’s dean, Dr. Ashish Jha, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers. The pair even put together an online course in “Pandemic Problem-Solving” designed to connect leaders and policy makers with powerful ideas – and with each other.

A good part of the school’s job is what Dr. Jha calls a “translation mission.”

“We gather a lot of evidence and data that policy makers may not know about or understand,” Dr. Jha explains. The school’s objective is to take that science and turn it into a practical plan for mitigating the pandemic’s impact and increasing resiliency against future pandemics.

“Government policies are a large part of that,” he says. “So are private organizations. So are new technologies, non-profits, and philanthropies. I think of it as… working across different sectors to improve the health of the population.”

Public health is a rapidly evolving field. Issues that seem crucial one day evaporate as the scientific evidence changes. Which is safer for students, maintaining a distance of six feet or three feet? It all depends on the most recent and most accurate studies.

The rapid development of effective vaccines cost US taxpayers $12.4 billion, but that didn’t include the nationwide vaccination costs. The current administration is making up for early inefficiencies with a commitment to quick and equitable distribution of vaccines.

This looks like a clear victory based on the science of medicine. Proponents of public health policy look down the road and wonder, how can we deal in the future with science-deniers?

According to Dr. Jha, we begin by listening and understanding what’s motivating them.

“I try to connect science and evidence to things that they care about,” he explains. “They care about family, their jobs, their communities. I try to lay out how it matters for things that they value. [For instance,] COVID vaccines will help you be safe around other people. Once you’ve been vaccinated, families can give each other hugs safely knowing no one is going to be getting anyone else sick.”

Hired away from Harvard in the midst of the pandemic, Dr. Jha leaped at the chance to “take a great school of public health and make it a world-class school of public health.”

The work of the School of Public Health combines research and implementation of solutions for public health issues that go beyond the pandemic. One project involves the opioid epidemic, researching risk factors and searching for the best ways to intervene, both on a policy level and on a human level.

As the school explains on the front page of its website, “Our students learn public health by doing public health.”

Applications to the program have skyrocketed, more than doubling in the past year with more than 700 people applying for 125 to 150 MA and PhD slots. All this growth has squeezed the school’s office space to capacity.

“The building right now is pretty much maxed out,” Dr. Jha says. “During non-pandemic times, we were renting out space in other parts of Providence.” To solve this problem, the University purchased The Packet Building and will shortly move the school next door. “Everyone understands now, in a way that they may not have understood a couple years ago, the importance of public health.”

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