As founding director of The Vaccine Confidence Project, Professor Heidi Larson knows a few things about building people’s trust in public health.
So, in her keynote address to the Yale School of Public Health’s Class of 2022 at Commencement Monday, Larson focused on the importance of building trust as the field of public health pushes forward against the swirling headwinds of politics, misinformation and doubt.
“Be open, listen carefully…,” Larson said in a prerecorded speech. “Everyone around you …has had a different experience these past few years, different challenges at many levels. Building the trust of those you work with in your new settings will be crucial.”
A professor of anthropology, risk and decision science at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Larson noted how concerning it was to see the level of aggression and anger behind the conspiracy theories, rumors and misinformation that began circulating during the pandemic.
“Somehow, moving forward, we are going to need to calm and rebuild a more hopeful and optimistic rather than angry and anxious public,” said Larson, whom the BBC named one of the 100 most influential women in the world in 2021. “It’s not going to be easy, but we are counting on all of you …to be good listeners and trust builders because we have a pretty fractured environment.”
In building public trust, Larson said, it is important to understand that the ‘public’ is not one single, homogenous entity. Publics are hugely heterogeneous, with multiple histories, beliefs, political stances and emotions, she said. And all of those factors influence a public’s willingness to cooperate – or not – for the ‘greater good.’
“Your effectiveness as public health practitioners will be determined by your alertness and sensitivity to these human factors…,” Larson said in closing. “Be open and listen carefully as you start your journey. Don’t stop listening. It is the most important thing I can think of… Each time you listen, it is a gesture of caring …it is a trust builder.”
Larson was in Davos, Switzerland, Monday attending the World Economic Forum, and was unable to attend the Woolsey Hall ceremony in person.
One hundred and eighty-four students received master’s degrees in public health during Monday’s event, representing the fields of biostatistics, chronic disease epidemiology, environmental health sciences, epidemiology of microbial diseases, health care management, health policy and social and behavioral sciences. Thirty-three M.P.H. degrees were awarded to members of the school’s Advanced Professional Program. Another 10 joint degrees were awarded to students in the fields of nursing, medicine and management. In a separate ceremony at the Yale Graduate School Commencement, 21 YSPH students received doctoral degrees and 33 received Master of Science degrees.
YSPH Dean Sten Vermund, M.D. Ph.D., opened the afternoon ceremonies by praising the school’s faculty and staff for their tireless efforts not only in responding to COVID-19, but other critical public health issues as well, such as climate change, racial, ethnic and economic disparities in health care, HIV, substance use and an array of infectious diseases threatening our global well-being.
But Vermund quickly turned to the honored guests of the day, reminding members of the graduating class that they were receiving their degrees at a historic time.
“In this year of 2022, you have equipped yourselves for further study or for immediate entry into the health workforce with skills that the world needs urgently,” Vermund said. He said that seeing the drive and passion of students, faculty and staff seeking to tackle urgent issues in public health has been the best part of his deanship since 2017. It has given him hope for the future.
“While our world has its immense challenges, I have a tremendous sense of optimism for the future of the field of public health as we turn the mantle of leadership over to you, our new generation,” said Vermund, who was leading his final graduation ceremony before returning to teaching and research on June 30. “I speak on behalf of all the faculty and staff when I say that we have been honored to work with you, guide your education and learn from you.”
One of the highlights of the day was the student address delivered by Nandini Deo, whose public health focus lies in community-based trauma prevention. Deo started her remarks by confessing that she wrote her speech with the help of her “bestie,” Google.
She asked the search engine how to write a graduation speech and was advised to lead with something profound. So, she did, picking a quote from organizational psychologist Adam Grant that she found on Twitter.
“Too many people spend their lives being dutiful descendants instead of good ancestors,” Grant tweeted. “The responsibility of each generation is not to please their predecessors, it’s to improve things for their offspring.”
Speaking to her classmates, Deo said she believes that a good ancestor is driven by hope and that “hope is really a call to retain a critical mind and a soft heart.” A critical mind, she said, questions everything – the methods, systems, theories and power differentials – while a soft heart reminds us why we do public health work: to see communities thrive, to believe that change is possible, to use the gifts we’ve cultivated “to create a world people want to live in.”
Hope is not an option, but a necessity in public health, Deo said. It comes in moments of curiosity when we question ourselves and the world around us and in our refusal to accept stagnation. It also comes in moments of creativity, when we use our imagination and evidence-based practices to create a new strategy or method, and in moments of love, as we remember that we are all “whole people with full lives.”
“I hope you continue to foster love in your everyday life so you can continue to extend love to the people you serve,” Deo said.
Lastly, and to her most importantly, Deo said hope comes in moments of humor, which she called “humanity’s most endearing survival tactic against adversity.”
“Class of 2022 …,” she said, “We are entering a field of public health at a time when our hope is desperately needed. I do believe that we have some to spare. I cannot wait to see you out there, making your corner of the world a better place to live in. Congratulations.”
In keeping with tradition, a variety of student, faculty and teaching awards were also handed out Monday. The following is a list of the 2022 award winners:
Dean’s Prize for Outstanding M.P.H. Thesis: Nandini Deo for her thesis “She trusts us to love her, you know? Using a Love Ethic framework to explore faith navigation and acceptance processes among Mormon mothers of LGBTQ+ individuals.”
Wilbur G. Downs Outstanding Thesis Prize in International Health: Georgiana Esteves. Thesis: “Support or Interference: Relational Influences on Mothers’ Exclusive Breastfeeding Practices in Ghana.”
Henry J. (Sam) Chauncey Jr. Inspiration Award (Health Management Program): Victoria Clarke.
Lowell Levin Award for Excellence in Global Health: Georgiana Esteves.
Student Award for Outstanding Contributions to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: Lauren Nicole Cueto, Aivy Duong and Simileoluwa Elizabeth Falako.
Teaching Fellow Award: Thomas Shao.
Distinguished Student Mentoring Award: Assistant Professor Ijeoma Opara, Ph.D., LMSW, M.P.H.
Distinguished Teaching Award: Professor David Paltiel, M.B.A., Ph.D.
Early Career Investigator Research Award: Assistant Professor Kai Chen for his paper “Role of meteorological factors in the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in the United States,” published in Nature; and Assistant Professor Fan Li for his paper “Sample size considerations for stepped wedge designs with subclusters,” published in Biometrics.
Investigator Research Award: Becca Levy for her paper “Impact of Media-Based Negative and Positive Age Stereotypes on Older Individuals’ Mental Health,” published in The Journals of Gerontology; and Michaela Dinan for her paper “Analysis of Sociodemographic, Clinical, and Genomic Factors Associated with Breast Cancer Mortality in the Linked Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results and Medicare Database,” published in JAMA Network Open.
Health Equity Research Award: Yusuf Ransome for his paper “Neighborhood Social Cohesion and Inequalities in COVID-19 Diagnosis Rates by Area-Level Black/African American Racial Composition,” published in the Journal of Urban Health; and Terika McCall for her paper “Development of a Mobile App to Support Self-management of Anxiety and Depression in African American Women: Usability Study,” published in JMIR Formative Research.
Team Research Award: Hannah Ehrlich, Amy Bei, Dan Weinberger, Josh Warren and Sunhil Parikh for their paper entitled “Mapping partner drug resistance to guide antimalarial combination therapy policies in sub-Saharan Africa,” published in PNAS; and Tyler Shelby, Xin Zhou, Donna Spiegelman, Lauretta Grau, Linda Niccolai and Luke Davis for their paper entitled “Lessons Learned From COVID-19 Contact Tracing During a Public Health Emergency: A Prospective Implementation Study,” published in Frontiers in Public Health.