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Alumni Day highlights data-driven leadership

November 07, 2023
by Fran Fried

More than 100 Yale School of Public Health alumni recently turned out for the first in-person Alumni Day in five years, attending an event-filled day at the New Haven Lawn Club that included lively discussions about the importance of data-driven leadership in public health, a poster contest, and the distribution of the annual alumni awards.

Dean Megan L. Ranney, MD, noted the critical importance of data-driven leadership in her welcoming remarks. Data-driven leadership is one of the four core pillars Ranney has identified as being essential to the future of public health. The other three are inclusivity, innovation and entrepreneurship, and communication.

“The future of public health is epitomized by today’s theme,” Ranney said. “We must be committed to data-driven leadership, which allows us to not just describe problems, not just to create knowledge, but also to create action and change on the other side.”

A highlight of the day was the annual presentation of awards by the Association of Yale Alumni in Public Health Alumni (AYAPH).

Vicki A. Freedman, PhD ’93 (chronic disease epidemiology), director of the Michigan Center on the Demography of Aging at the University of Michigan, received this year's Distinguished Alumni Award. The Distinguished Alumni Award was established by the AYAPH Board of Directors in 1988 and recognizes the contributions and achievements of alumni who have had distinguished careers in public health as outstanding teachers, researchers, or practitioners.

In her current director's role and as a research professor at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, Freedman has dedicated her career to advocating for adequate economic and health care provisions for the global aging population. Through her co-leadership of the National Health and Aging Trends Study (NHATS) and the National Study of Caregiving (NSOC), Freedman has been instrumental in developing and disseminating new measures to support the widespread study of these issues.

The Eric Mood Young Professionals Award was given to Jessica Liu, MPH ’19, a postdoctoral research scholar in the Department of Pediatrics, Division of Adolescent Health, at Stanford University. This award was established by the Board of Directors of the Association of Yale Alumni in Public Health (AYAPH) in 2005 to commemorate the contributions and career of Eric W. Mood, a beloved teacher and mentor for almost 50 years at YSPH. The award recognizes the career of an alumnus/a who is a promising new professional in the field of public health.

As a postdoctoral research scholar at the REACH Lab at Stanford, Liu researches adolescent health and school-based prevention interventions, with a focus on the adolescent vaping epidemic. She graduated with a PhD in Population Health Sciences from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She has utilized her research to advocate for policy in state hearings and is passionate about teaching and mentoring.

Also as part of Alumni Day, several YSPH students competed in a poster contest, with alumni guests voting for the best poster. Cristina Arnés Sanz, MPH ’25, won the contest and a $500 cash award from AYAPH for her poster, “Decision-support tools to build climate resilience against emerging infectious diseases in Europe and beyond.”

Embracing data in public health

YSPH alumna Marta Moret, MPH ’84, started off the day describing her role as president of Urban Policy Strategies, LLC, a New Haven-based consulting firm that conducts community public health research and assessment to promote public health policies for the betterment of the underserved. She shared how she came to embrace data as vice president for public affairs for a telephone workers’ union – measuring occupational stress in nearly 3,000 workers in the U.S. and Canada. The experience taught her how to enter data and crunch numbers – which she said was key to her being admitted to YSPH and to her longtime line of work.

Data-driven leadership

In one of the day’s most popular segments, three YSPH alums described how they apply data-driven science in their careers. Speaking on the panel were: John Brownstein, PhD ’04 (epidemiology), professor of biomedical informatics at Harvard, chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital, and director of the Computational Epilab and Innovation & Digital Health Accelerator at Boston Children’s; Norma Padrón, PhD ’04 (health policy management), founder and CEO of EmpiricaLab; and Anant Shah, MPH ’07 (epidemiology), new products and lifecycle lead at Moderna.

Dean Ranney led off the discussion by asking each alum how they define data in their current roles.

Brownstein said his use of non-traditional data streams was defined at YSPH. He and his advisor, Durland Fish, professor emeritus of epidemiology (microbial diseases), worked on Lyme disease surveillance and used satellite data to predict where it was spreading. At Harvard and Boston Children’s, Brownstein said his use of non-traditional data grew to include scraping online sites and mining social media to learn more about potential viral threats and other problems.

Padrón’s company is focused on developing smart learning, training, and management systems in data-related health care roles. She learned the technical aspects of working with data at YSPH, and then, when she started working in hospitals, determined how to best use it.

As one of the people involved in the roll out of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, Shah said he relies heavily on data to make key decisions on bringing vaccines to the marketplace. Data, he said, plays a “very holistic, strategic role” when he makes business decisions related to the invention, development, and marketing of products. Data helps him understand the scope of different challenges and helps him evaluate potential solutions. The big challenge, he said, is processing massive amounts of raw data.

Ranney then asked the panelists how they have used, interpreted, and created knowledge out of data in a way that drives change.

Padrón said she learned from her experiences at both the American Hospitals Association and at Anthem that the best way to use data to influence a decision is “to really try and tag the metrics in the outcomes.”

Shah focused on his difficult efforts to get the Indian government to add pediatric pneumococcal vaccines to its schedule. “Very simple data showed that there was a range of reasons” for the difficulty, and led to a multi-pronged approach to rolling out the vaccine, he said.

Brownstein said when it comes to public health, it’s not just the accumulation of data – it’s processing raw material without context. During a tripledemic of RSV, COVID-19, and the flu last year, Brownstein said his team at Boston Children’s had to create a modeling unit to gather and analyze large amount of raw data in order to provide real-time forecasts of potential case numbers to help them manage capacity.

Ranney’s third question regarded data equity. She asked each panelist how they address potential bias in data and ensure that historically marginalized populations are fairly represented.

Shah cited two approaches: clinical trial design – getting diverse groups of people to enroll in trials and analyzing data in a way that reflects diversity in the results – and equitable access to vaccines. When new COVID-19 vaccines became available, wealthier countries got the vaccines first, Shah said, leaving poorer countries behind. Better data, he said, would have brought symmetry to supply and demand.

Brownstein’s team runs, a website that helps people find the closest sites for COVID-19 and flu shots. They determined that about 90% of Americans lived within five miles of a vaccination site. But they also found that there were 30 million Americans who faced significant challenges in getting vaccinated. This included people who were underinsured, unable to leave their jobs to get vaccinated, or without access to necessary transportation. Using available data, the team figured out how public health departments could optimize vaccine site locations by opening pop-up vaccination centers in community places of worship, barbershops, and storefronts.

Padrón said her business uses data to help make the health care workforce – the largest in the U.S. with over 21 million workers – more equitable. Currently, more than 77% of U.S. health care workers are women, and most of the jobs aren’t very well-paid, Padrón said. One solution, she said, is training workers for the changes that are coming in an increasingly digital and data-driven system so they can deliver better care.

For her last question, Ranney asked the participants to identify the one new skill or one new partner they felt would help them the most in continuing their success in data-driven leadership.

Brownstein said learning LM, a new functional programming language, and becoming an artificial intelligence “prompt” engineer “is probably the skill of the next decade.” Shah said his field – vaccines – needs to optimize data better in order to convince people that the return on investment in public health is worth every dollar and encourage more partnerships with the private sector. Padrón added a third skill to go along with AI and ROI: management of big projects – emergency preparedness and risk management on regional levels.

Using data to drive change

Several YSPH faculty took to the podium for five minutes in a lightning round, sharing examples of how data helped them lead change.

Forrest Crawford, associate professor of biostatistics and co-director of the Public Health Modeling Concentration, shared how his unit was called on in March 2020 to provide modeling, forecasting, and data science capabilities to the state of Connecticut to assist with the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The unit collected social distancing information using mobile device data; and provided forecasting of COVID-19 transmission using mathematical models, helping Governor Ned Lamont make decisions on reopening schools, universities, and retail establishments.

Nicole Deziel, associate professor of epidemiology (environmental health sciences), provided two examples of the impact of her lab’s data-driven research. In one study, Deziel used data to link a sharp increase in thyroid cancer in the U.S. over the last three decades to PFAS “forever” chemicals in everyday items. In another study, she analyzed the effects of fracking on residents of the Appalachian Basin. The study found that children born near gas and oil wells had twice the risk of developing childhood leukemia than children who live farther away. As a result, the state of California is now increasing the allowable distance between drillings and homes. She has also testified about her findings before members of the U.S. Senate and published editorials in regions impacted by fracking.

Gregg Gonsalves, PhD ’17 (public health), associate professor of epidemiology (microbial diseases) and a member of the Public Health Modeling Concentration, spoke about the modeling team’s work in finding new ways to predict HIV outbreaks among people using drugs. The team seeks to create an early-warning system to quickly and efficiently determine the signs of an outbreak, and learned from hospital data in Massachusetts that increases in certain diseases, infections, and medical procedures preceded rises in HIV and Hepatitis C by months. He said they are still working on a way to predict outbreaks in real time.

Chima Ndumele, associate professor of public health (health policy) and associate professor in the Institute for Social and Policy Studies, talked about YSPH partnering with Connecticut’s Department of Social Services to improve services for those most in need. As the federal government unwinds the Medicaid continuous coverage provision enacted during the height of the COVID-10 pandemic, up to 434,000 state residents are at risk of losing their Medicaid coverage if they don’t reapply. Ndumele and Assistant Professor of Public Health (Health Policy) Jacob Wallace found that by linking data across state agencies, 85,000 Connecticut residents’ coverage could be reinstated over a year’s time.

Tracking atrocities in Ukraine and Sudan

“The pathogen we study is war.”

Nathaniel Raymond, a lecturer in epidemiology (microbial diseases) and executive director of YSPH’s Humanitarian Research Lab, discussed the lab’s documentation of atrocities in Ukraine and Sudan in a presentation entitled “Data for Tracking Mass Atrocities and Measuring the Health Impacts of Conflicts.”

In February, Raymond and Kaveh Khoshnood, PhD ’95, MPH ’89, associate professor of epidemiology of microbial diseases and the Humanitarian Research Lab’s faculty director, released a report documenting Russia’s systematic relocation of thousands of Ukrainian children to 43 Russian re-education and adoption facilities. They presented their findings to the United Nations and in March, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova for the war crime of unlawful deportation of children.

In monitoring Sudan’s Darfur region, Raymond said the lab has created the most up-to-date and accurate database of deaths and possible genocidal attacks in the region using NASA open-source satellites.

Working together

After an engaging Q&A session between the panelists and audience, Ranney wrapped up the day by asking alumni to engage in four key ways as YSPH transitions to an independent school: to help the school expand the applicant pool of excellent students; to take advantage of opportunities provided by YSPH Alumni Affairs to serve as mentors to current students; to connect with other alumni from across the University by exploring the many clubs and shared interest groups available through the Yale Alumni Association; and support the amazing students at YSPH by making a contribution to the YSPH Alumni Fund, every dollar of which supports financial aid.

Submitted by Fran Fried on October 31, 2023