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Yale School of Public Health Graduates Urged to Lead with a “Healthy Disregard for the Impossible”

May 21, 2024
by Colin Poitras

Speaking at her first Commencement as the new Dean of the Yale School of Public Health, Dr. Megan L. Ranney, MD, on Monday urged graduates not to feel overwhelmed as they step forth into a world reeling under worsening climate change, wars, humanitarian crises, and eroding trust in science.

She reminded the 361 students gathered in Woolsey Hall that they have overcome many obstacles to get to where they are today, including navigating through the upheaval of COVID-19 to earn their degree. As they move on to professional jobs or to further their education, Ranney told the graduates that they already possess many of the skills they need to affect the change they wish to see in the world.

“It is possible to feel hopeless, but I hope that you will reframe it into a message of possibility,” said Ranney, the C.-E. A. Winslow Professor of Public Health (Health Policy) and a Professor of Emergency Medicine. “You, our graduates, more than anyone, have the potential to create change.”

She urged graduates to “follow their North Star” and to maintain throughout their careers the passion and motivation that first led them to the field of public health. She stressed the importance of gathering and accurately presenting data in carrying out the mission of public health and encouraged the Class of 2024 to be “incorrigible optimists.”

“Public health at its core is a story of optimism,” Ranney said. “It is thanks to our science, our action, and our humanism, that global AIDS deaths have decreased by more than 90%; U.S. car crash deaths per capita have decreased by 70%, smallpox has been eliminated across the globe, childhood lead poisoning has become an anomaly in the U.S., and I could go on. These successes that we barely appreciate today are all thanks to public health and you, graduates, are the next step in that optimism.”

Ranney said she is confident that this year’s graduating class is prepared and poised to become tomorrow’s leaders and change agents in public health.

“Looking to the future,” Ranney said, “I am confident that this graduating class will use data, stories, and passion to transform those systems and structures that determine health in ways that we – your teachers and community – can’t possibly imagine.”

“Needed Now More Than Ever”

Change – and having the skills, drive, and courage to lead change – quickly emerged as the central theme of the Class of 2024’s Commencement.

Class Speaker Kamali Clora, MPH (Health Care Management), amplified Ranney’s remarks, highlighting the need for public health leadership during turbulent times and reminding those in attendance of the importance of the field of public health, which he said has increased life expectancy in the U.S. by more than 25 years over the past century.

“We are needed now more than ever, as we have witnessed the far-reaching effects of politics and power on the very fabric of our work,” said Clora, a Hortsmann Scholar and Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy Fellow. “We have seen science twisted and contorted to fit political agendas leaving truth and evidence trampled in its wake. On top of this, we inherit a world where war, genocide, and racism persist. A climate crisis that for some reason is still under contention, where there are policies that criminalize women and transgender people’s bodily autonomy, and where health outcomes are too often determined by ZIP codes.

“But I stand here today, not to dwell on the problems, but to ignite the flame of leading with a healthy disregard for the impossible,” Clora continued. “Public health needs bold, empathetic, visionary leaders like us who are unafraid to disrupt existing paradigms and zealously forge new paths that ensure the conditions where every individual can enjoy a prolonged, healthy life.”

Like Ranney, Clora reminded his peers of the skills they have learned. But he said that commitment and courage are also needed to affect real change.

“Leading change does not come from the luxury of complacency, it stems from one powerful word – courage,” Clora said. “Courage to examine our own complicity in systems of oppression. Courage to listen to those with whom you disagree and finding compromise, and courage to wake up every day, not to see the world as it is, but as it ought to be, for it is easy to become overwhelmed by the magnitude of these issues and succumb to cynicism.”

Be less concerned with who you have to stand up to and more concerned about who you are standing up for. You are, in so many ways, someone’s greatest hope.

2024 Class Speaker Kamali Clora

While acknowledging the importance of data in public health, Clora cautioned his fellow students not to get lost in statistics and to remember that there is a human story behind every data point.

“The work we do is deeply personal, and it is these stories that should fuel our drive to be catalysts of transformational change, unwavering advocates for evidence over misinformed ideology, and amplifiers of marginalized and disenfranchised voices,” Clora said.

“We owe our community our ears, our skills, and our voice,” Clora continued. “So be less concerned with who you have to stand up to and more concerned about who you are standing up for. You are, in so many ways, someone’s greatest hope.”

Clora closed by encouraging his fellow graduates to see the bigger picture and embrace the call to lead.

“We are not just graduates of the Yale School of Public Health; we are torchbearers of a legacy that stretches back over a century,” Clora said. “And now join the ranks of the venerated leaders that have emerged from this very institution. The question becomes…what will you do with that torch while you have it?”

Clora walked off the Woolsey Hall stage to a rousing standing ovation.

“Public Health is Political”

In delivering the Commencement’s keynote address, Dr. Céline Gounder, an internationally renowned internist, infectious disease specialist, and epidemiologist who served on President Biden’s COVID-19 Advisory Board, also mentioned today’s challenging times. She stressed the importance of addressing existing and emerging public health threats creatively – and politically.

Gounder, a senior fellow and editor-at-large for public health at KFF (formerly known as The Kaiser Family Foundation) and KFF Health News, and a CBS News medical contributor, said she was particularly concerned about the current global spread of H5N1 avian flu, which she said was mutating and giving her “COVID-19 flashbacks.”

“I feel like I’m watching a train wreck in slow motion,” said Gounder, who cares for patients at New York’s Bellevue Hospital and is also a clinical associate professor of medicine and infectious diseases at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine. “With COVID, the crash took weeks. With H5N1, maybe it’ll take years. But that doesn’t make it any less painful to watch. In some ways it’s even more painful since this time we might actually have more time to act. But Americans are just so over it. Most of the public doesn’t want to remember [COVID] and learn. Americans just want to move on.”

Gounder praised the Biden administration for offering incentives to dairy farmers and farmworkers to encourage them to cooperate with H5N1 public health measures such as increased virus surveillance and taking steps to prevent transmission. But she said adoption of those measures continues to be a challenge. Gounder’s comparison of America’s response to COVID and the avian influenza virus illustrated the importance of a multi-faceted public health response.

“One of the lessons of the COVID pandemic should have been that controlling an infectious disease isn’t just a question of having diagnostic tests, treatments, and vaccines,” Gounder said. “It’s also about creating systems that allow people and industry to do the right thing for their own health and for public health without having to take a hit.”

She urged graduates to take time to understand the perspectives of other stakeholders whose first priority may not be public health, whether that be undocumented immigrant farmworkers afraid of being deported, the dairy cattle industry worried about its bottom line, consumers anxious about unknown risks and resistant to paying more for groceries, or even partner trade nations that may be looking at the H5N1 avian flu outbreak with a wary eye.

“Think creatively, not only about biomedical and technical solutions but more importantly systemic and structural solutions, and dare I say, political solutions, too,” Gounder said in closing. “Public health is political. And learning how to navigate the political with grace may be the greatest challenge of your careers. Good luck and make us proud.”

Best Wishes from the WHO Director-General

Of the 361 students graduating Monday, 272 received a Master of Public Health degree and 78 received a Master of Science degree in public health. An additional 11 students received joint MPH degrees with other graduate-level programs in the Schools of Nursing, Management, Environment, and Yale’s Physician Associate Program.

A special hooding ceremony for 29 PhD recipients took place earlier on Sunday, May 19. During the ceremony, the PhD graduates received personal congratulations from Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization.

In a pre-recorded video address, Ghebreyesus said the students’ expertise “will be crucial, not just for protecting and promoting the health of individuals and families but the well-being of societies, economies, and nations.”

Watch Dr. Ghebreyesus’s address on YouTube.

Ghebreyesus said one of the most important aspects of the students’ education happened outside of the classroom.

“You were firsthand witnesses to the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ghebreyesus said. “And that means you are graduating not only as public health professionals, but as people who know what it means to live through a pandemic.”

The Class of 2024, he said, has seen in real time the impact of public health policies, the inequalities that lie at the root of many public health challenges, the importance of winning community trust, and how mis- and disinformation can cost lives. He said students have learned the invaluable lesson of how public health can be politicized locally, nationally, and globally.

While Yale provided students with an outstanding education, Ghebreyesus said one of the most important qualities of any health worker is one that “cannot really be taught – and that is to learn to listen.”

“So, wherever your career takes you, remember that the people and communities with which you work often have a lot to teach you as well,” Ghebreyesus said. “I wish you the very best in what I hope is a long and varied career.”

The hooding ceremony also included the awarding of this year’s YSPH PhD Research Prize. There were two recipients of the award. Yiqun Ma (Environmental Health Sciences) was honored for her publication in Nature Human Behavior entitled Racial/ethnic disparities in PM2.5-attributable cardiovascular mortality burden in the United States.” Zhuoer Lin (Health Policy and Management) was honored for his upcoming publication in JAMA Internal Medicine entitled “Early-Life Circumstances and Racial Disparities in Cognition among Older Adults in the US.

Before the official awarding of diplomas at Woolsey Hall Monday, graduates and their families gathered at New Haven’s Omni Hotel for a luncheon social. During the luncheon, Dean Ranney announced the winners of this year’s faculty and student awards.

2024 Distinguished Teaching Award

Associate Professor Michaela Dinan, Assistant Clinical Professor Michael Wininger

Michaela Dinan’s students cited her “unparalleled commitment to student success” while fostering “a supportive and inclusive learning environment” in nominating her for the award. Students spoke highly of Dinan’s mentorship, passion, and engaging curriculum stating: “She consistently delivers high-quality content, ensuring that each week is filled with valuable learning experiences.” It is evident that Michaela’s teaching has made an enduring impact, with students sharing that they aspire to emulate her level of dedication in their own work.
Michael Wininger was lauded by his students for his versatility, active and inclusive instruction, and ability to deliver concepts “in fresh and innovative ways.” One student said: “His ability to seamlessly weave personal experiences, real-world examples, and academic theories left students eagerly awaiting each lecture session.” Wininger was praised for consistently supporting his students' development both inside and outside the classroom, and for being a “true mentor” who focuses on the overall growth and success of each student.

2024 Distinguished Student Mentoring Award

Kai Chen

Assistant Professor Kai Chen’s students praised his dedication and commitment as a mentor and for going “above and beyond” to ensure their academic success. Students referenced Chen’s passion for his work. One student said Chen’s encouragement “has ensured that I will create the best possible version of my thesis that it can be.”

Award for Outstanding Contributions to Advancing Belonging, Equity, and Justice

Ashley Nicole Reynolds Marshall, Amrit Sandhu

As Deputy City Manager for Social Equity for the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, Reynolds Marshall oversees a robust portfolio that includes the city’s Downtown Job Center and Home to Hope program focused on welcoming formerly incarcerated persons back into the community. Reynolds Marshall also serves as the city’s Chief Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Officer and LGBTQIA+ Liaison.

Sandhu is a Student Fellow with the Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy and a Graduate Research Assistant with the Yale Trauma and Mental Health Lab. A health policy student specializing in global health, Amrit has a long history of human rights involvement including internships with Minnesota’s Safe Harbor program and The Advocates for Human Rights Women’s Human Rights Program.

Dean’s Prize for Outstanding MPH Thesis

Ellie Cragan Bourgikos

Thesis title: “Ecological Factors Influencing the Evolution of Jamestown Canyon Virus in the Northern United States.”

Jamestown Canyon virus (JCV) is a re-emerging arthropod-borne virus in the Midwest and northeast United States, infecting mosquitoes and white-tailed deer in a seasonal transmission cycle. Its spread may contribute to thousands of asymptomatic human infections, with 194 total cases of neuroinvasive disease diagnosed. However, very little is known about the virus’s evolutionary history, transmission patterns, and lineage distribution. For this project, we sequenced 689 JCV samples, increasing the availability of this species’ genomes. Incorporating both genomic and surveillance data, this project significantly expands our understanding of JCV, untangling a complex viral transmission cycle to identify future areas for public health intervention.

Dean’s Prize for Outstanding MPH Thesis

Riena Suzanne Harker

Thesis title: “Effects of Wildfire Smoke and Nonsmoke PM2.5 on Respiratory, Circulatory, and Mental Health in Nevada: A Case-Crossover Study on Emergency Department Visits from 2016-2019.”

As climate and land use change amplify the frequency and severity of wildfire-conducive environmental conditions, wildfire smoke pollution becomes an increasingly pressing public health concern. Our study indicates that wildfire smoke and nonsmoke PM2.5 have the greatest effects on different health outcomes. Wildfire smoke PM2.5 was most strongly associated with increased risk of schizophrenia and cerebrovascular disease, while nonsmoke PM2.5 was most strongly associated with all respiratory, COPD, and hypertensive diseases. We also show significant and lasting effects of both smoke and nonsmoke PM2.5 on substance use disorders.

Wilbur G. Downs Outstanding Thesis Prize in International Health

Catherine Wenger

Thesis title: “Cost-Effectiveness Analysis of Alternative Infant and Neonatal Rotavirus Vaccination Schedules in Malawi.” Dr. Downs was a pioneer in international health and a long-time faculty member at YSPH.

The primary aim of this study was to evaluate the impact of and cost- effectiveness of the current Rotarix rotavirus vaccine, two alternative vaccine delivery schedules, and the next-generation vaccine (RV3-BB) in Malawi. Findings show the current vaccine program is cost-effective, reduces burden, and saves lives, and it should be sustained. However, switching to the neonatal RV3-BB vaccine is the most cost-effective, and in the absence of this vaccine, a three-dose alternative to the current strategy is preferred.

Henry J. (Sam) Chauncey Jr. Inspiration Award

Kamali Clora

The Henry J. (Sam) Chauncey Jr. Inspiration Award is awarded by alumni of the Health Management Program to a student who exemplifies Mr. Chauncey’s ideals of innovation, integrity, leadership, and community service. Mr. Chauncy, BA ’57, is a former secretary of the University and one of the founders of Yale’s Health Management Program.

Lowell Levin Award for Excellence in Global Health

Charles Minicucci

The Lowell Levin prize is awarded to a graduating student whose work addresses health promotion and global health. Lowell Levin, ’60, is a former YSPH professor who was a long-time policy advisor to the World Health Organization.

Outstanding MPH Thesis Prize in Health Equity

Karenna Kinsella Thomas

“I don't work for the prison. I don't work for the hospital either. I’m yours. Who else here is yours?” A Qualitative Analysis of Facilitators and Barriers of Launching Enhanced Perinatal Programs in Seven State Prisons”

The objective of this study was to identify facilitators and barriers to implementing enhanced perinatal programs in seven state prisons in order to inform future program initiation. We identified six main facilitators (moral obligation, precipitating events, physical access to the facility, relationships and partnerships, champions, and pragmatism) and four key barriers (resistance, bureaucracy, lack of consistency around application of policies, and power imbalances). These results highlight the importance of legislation in codifying doula programs as well as provide insight into strategies for implementation of future perinatal programming in other states as a provisional effort while simultaneously continuing advocacy for expanded decarceration and furlough policies.

Teaching Fellow Award

Sunny Siddique

The Teaching Fellow Award recognizes a YSPH student who demonstrates outstanding performance as a teaching fellow and promise as a future teacher.

Submitted by Colin Poitras on May 22, 2024