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Alumni Donation Increases Yale Public Health Scholarships

October 06, 2021
by Colin Poitras

A record number of students at the Yale School of Public Health are receiving scholarship aid this year thanks in part to a generous gift from two long-time supporters of the school.

The contribution from Dr. Mary Gilbert Lawrence, M.D., M.P.H. ’98, and James A. Lawrence, YC ’74, helped the school raise more than $300,000 for its Alumni Fund, surpassing a fundraising goal for the fund that was the most ambitious in school history.

“Scholarships provide our students with the critical financial support they need to pursue a first-class education at the Yale School of Public Health,” said YSPH Associate Dean for Student and External Affairs Frank Grosso. “That education and training, in return, helps our students realize their professional career goals and have a real impact in public health around the world.

“We are grateful for the Lawrences’ ongoing support, and we hope their very generous gift will inspire other YSPH alumni to support our school during this time of tremendous financial need in higher education and of tremendous need for future leaders in public health,” Grosso continued.

The Yale School of Public Health has seen a surge in student applications over the past year in response to a heightened interest in public health issues, from COVID-19 and infectious disease epidemiology to climate change and systemic racism.

The Yale School of Public Health’s leadership in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic – and Dean Sten Vermund’s leadership in particular – was one of the factors that inspired the Lawrences to help the school reach its targeted scholarship fund goal.

“Jim and I are both goal-oriented. When we heard there was an amount that was needed to reach the fundraising goal for scholarships, we decided to help the YSPH make it across the finish line,” said Mary Lawrence, who is a 10-year member of the YSPH Leadership Council. A Wills Eye Hospital trained ophthalmologist and former faculty member at Harvard and the University of Minnesota, Mary Lawrence has served as deputy director of the Department of Defense/Veterans Affairs Vision Center of Excellence in Washington D.C., President of the Minnesota Academy of Ophthalmology and President of the Association of VA Ophthalmologists.

Mary Lawrence came to Yale after serving as full-time faculty at Harvard Medical School. As a Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar, Lawrence received her training in clinical epidemiology from Dr. Alvan R. Feinstein, renowned Yale Sterling Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology.

Lawrence credits her instruction at Yale with helping her succeed in launching what was to become one of the largest telemedicine programs in the world in 2000, long before telemedicine was widely adopted as a health care service option. The program, which still exists today, helps detect and treat diabetic retinopathy in thousands of patients in the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system. Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness in people under age 40.

Mary Lawrence’s training in public health also came in handy when she served as the VA’s lead ophthalmologist overseeing treatment and care for service members wounded during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. The job required Lawrence to coordinate care from combat zones and field hospitals to international and stateside military and VA medical centers.

“I was coordinating a global medical system for eye care, and it was fascinating, exhilarating and heartbreaking all at the same time,” she said. “I couldn’t have done all of that without the international health coursework and education I obtained while pursuing a master’s degree at the Yale School of Public Health.”

I couldn’t have done all of that without the international health coursework and education I obtained while pursuing a master’s degree at the Yale School of Public Health.

Dr. Mary Gilbert Lawrence

James Lawrence’s support of the Yale School of Public Health comes from a different direction.

Even though he and Dean Vermund famously clashed (Lawrence calls it a “lively interaction”) over the role food companies play in contributing to the nation’s obesity epidemic at an alumni event years ago, James Lawrence, a former vice chairman of food giant General Mills, says he has nothing but respect for Vermund and his leadership in public health. (The two ultimately resolved their conflict by sharing various scientific studies supporting their position in conversations after the event and learning from each other.) In fact, Lawrence said, the decision to contribute to the YSPH Alumni Fund was directly tied to Vermund’s service as dean.

“Sten Vermund has done an enormously good job as dean,” said James Lawrence, a long-time leader in the international business community and a graduate of the Harvard Business School. “He has acquired and retained the best faculty. It’s a great team. And as much as we like obtaining goals, we also like rewarding excellence.”

He specifically praised Vermund for conveying “important factual and useful information during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic so that all of the people on the front lines were understanding and accepting of what was going on.”

James Lawrence is a former Chairman of Rothschild North America, former Chief Financial Officer for Unilever and former Executive Vice President of Northwest Airlines, in addition to his prior role with General Mills. But it was in his capacity as Chairman of the Board at Kent School, a co-educational college preparatory school in Connecticut, that Lawrence again engaged directly with Dean Vermund.

He said he was greatly impressed that Vermund took the time to visit Kent School and help staff implement proper precautions to protect students from COVID-19 when the virus was raging across the U.S. in 2020. Vermund and YSPH Assistant Professor Krystal Pollitt, an expert in environmental health sciences, visited numerous Connecticut schools and regional arts associations in 2020 to help them coordinate a response to the pandemic.

“I have enormous appreciation for what he and his faculty did, and our gift is a reflection of that appreciation,” he said.

Submitted by Ivette Aquilino on October 06, 2021