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Aspen Ideas Festival transformative experience for YSPH professor

July 08, 2024
by Ijeoma Opara

This year’s Aspen Ideas Festival, a gathering of brilliant minds from across the globe, proved to be a transformative experience that reaffirmed my passion for public health and the innovative work we're doing at Yale School of Public Health (YSPH). As one of the Aspen Ideas Health Fellows, I found myself immersed in a vibrant community of professionals, each bringing unique perspectives to the table.

Dean Megan Ranney’s presence at the festival was a testament to YSPH's commitment to leading innovation in public health. One of my favorite sessions during the festival was Dean Ranney’s panel with Dr. Brendan Carr, CEO of the Mount Sinai Health System, on strengthening partnerships between health care and public health, which highlighted the critical intersections we must navigate to improve health outcomes. It also gave many hope that Dean Ranney—the only dean on the panel—would ensure that the next generation of students will understand the importance of working cohesively with health care systems.

A defining moment of the festival was my encounter with Dr. Francis Collins, former director of the National Institutes of Health (2009-2021). This meeting brought my career full circle, as I reflected on receiving the NIH Director's Early Independence Award in 2020, while Dr. Collins was director. I was the first social worker ever to receive the award and that grant launched my career, birthing The Substances and Sexual Health (SASH) Lab and enabling groundbreaking work in Paterson, New Jersey. In 2021, Dr. Collins highlighted my research in the NIH Directors’ Blog.

Meeting Dr. Collins in person at Aspen allowed me to express my gratitude for the award and share how my career has flourished since then, including my move to Yale and my receiving the 2024 NIDA Director's Pioneer Award, which provided me with $5.5 million dollars over five years to expand my work to other urban cities in New Jersey. To date, I am one of the few people in the nation to have received both a DP5 and DP1—and even less recipients, if any, have received both awards to do community-based work in the social sciences.

Beyond his scientific leadership, Dr. Collins' openness about his faith as a scientist was profoundly inspiring. As a fellow Christian, seeing a renowned scientist unapologetically discuss the intersection of faith and science was affirming and motivational for me.

The festival showcased Yale's impressive footprint in public health and medicine. Dr. Harlan Krumholz from the Yale School of Medicine and YSPH participated in a panel discussion about GLP-1 medications and the racial disparities that exist in accessing them. Dr. Krumholz’s session—moderated by Dr. Jennifer Ashton, chief medical correspondent for ABC News—reinforced the dynamic and impactful work being done at our institution.

Among the many thought-provoking sessions I attended at the festival, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy's talk on social isolation stood out the most to me. His practical advice on investing in relationships and being present in our interactions resonated deeply, especially in our increasingly disconnected world.

Dr. Murthy listed 3 key things we all can do to improve our connection with others:

1. Spend 15 minutes a day reaching out to someone you care about.

2. Be fully present when doing so. Refrain from multitasking while connecting with someone. A present conversation lasting 15 minutes is more beneficial than a 60-minute distracted conversation.

3. Do one act of service or an act of kindness every day.

I got a chance to talk to Dr. Murthy after his session about my research findings on Black girls and their unique experiences using social media, an area that he is passionate about. The surgeon general is working to make social media a safer place for all adolescents.

A chance encounter with CDC Director Mandy Cohen at the wellness tent (where I was getting oxygen due to the high altitude) led to an insightful conversation about leadership and the importance of social support and family in high-pressure roles as women.

The session on "Closing the Climate Gap for Girls & Women" was eye-opening, highlighting the disproportionate impact of climate change on vulnerable populations. It inspired me to consider how to incorporate these insights into my work on Black girls in the U.S.

As I reflect on my time at Aspen, I'm struck by the festival's unique ability to foster genuine connections and conversations without pretense. The experience reinforced the importance of not only relationships and community, but also community-based participatory work in public health—a cornerstone of my lab's approach. Many speakers emphasized the need to engage communities and involve those most affected in designing solutions, validating the significance of our work at The SASH Lab.

Leaving Aspen, I feel reinvigorated and hopeful about the future of health care and public health. The festival confirmed the value of our innovative, community-based approach, and inspired new ideas for collaboration and impact. As we continue our work at YSPH and The SASH Lab, I carry with me the insights, connections, and inspiration gleaned from this extraordinary gathering of minds at Aspen. I am also so excited to have new friends in my health fellow’s cohort! It’s truly a stellar group of individuals and I’m happy to be connected to them.

Ijeoma Opara, PhD, LMSW, MPH, is an associate professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Yale School of Public Health. She is the director and principal investigator of The Substances and Sexual Health (SASH) Lab and associate director of the Justice, Community Capacity & Equity (JuCCE) Core Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS. Dr. Opara attended the 2024 Aspen Ideas Festival from June 20-23.

Submitted by Colin Poitras on July 04, 2024