Harvard Chan Dean Williams on cross-discipline collaboration & ‘magical’ LMA


A Q&A with Michelle Williams, Dean, Chan School of Public Health

MASCO: You have undertaken extensive research in maternal and child health around the world, as well as advising many professional organizations and institutions and receiving prestigious awards for teaching and mentoring. How has being Dean changed or enhanced your focus and your passion?

Dean Williams: It’s been an honor to lead this great institution at a time when the world faces myriad public health challenges, including the impact of climate change on health, an aging population, and the burden of violence and trauma on populations. One of my areas of focus is to encourage more collaboration between all of our disciplines to address these complex issues. Of course, as an academic administrative leader, I still need to stay current in my area of reproductive epidemiology and continue to administer grants and supervise doctoral students. However, as Dean, I’m able to shape a broader agenda and have a positive influence on hundreds of students at the School.

MASCO: Given the many challenges facing the world today, how do you stay positive and keep your students focused on creating and supporting change for the good?

Dean Williams: One of the great things about our students is their passion to create change in the world—in fact, many have already done so before coming to the School. It’s easy to stay positive when I meet with students, learn about their research and fieldwork, and see the wide variety of public health careers they pursue when they leave here. I also take great pride in the work of our faculty and staff, and one of my goals is to improve the School’s infrastructure so that students, faculty, and staff have an easier time working together in common spaces and bridging disciplines.

MASCO: Do you think the #MeToo movement has a public health aspect to it, where faculty and students might contribute to the discussion and solutions?

Dean Williams: In shining a light on sexual assault and harassment, the #MeToo movement has also shed light on a major public health problem—domestic violence. It’s estimated that, in one year, 300 million women ages 15-64 are assaulted by an intimate partner. We are undertaking research to learn more about this problem and to try to come up with some solutions. I would also say that, while there has not been enough research exploring exactly this question, we can speculate that the type of unrelenting, often daily harassment that has been surfaced by the #MeToo movement can lead to toxic stress in people who are subjected to it. And there is a very strong body of evidence showing that this kind of continuous stress, in turn, can trigger a cascade of adverse health outcomes, including increased risk of serious medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other metabolic disorders.

MASCO: What is a typical day like for you – if you have a typical day?

Dean Williams: Since becoming Dean, I do not believe that I’ve ever had a typical day. However, no matter how busy the day or how early my first meeting, I have learned to always make time for physical activity. The physical and cognitive benefits of regular exercise are not to be underestimated. Regular exercise boosts energy, confidence, self-esteem, and helps in preventing a large number of health problems that we once thought were inevitable as we age.

MASCO: You received your Master’s and Doctorate in ’91 at the Chan School and then came back in 2011 as Professor, so you have been an important part of Longwood at different times in your career. What changes in the Longwood community stand out to you?

Dean Williams: Let me start with what has not changed, Longwood continues to be a magical place – a marketplace of extraordinary talent, energy, and creativity focused on addressing generational challenges. The most compelling changes that attracted me back to Harvard and which make me happy each day I come to campus are as follows: 1) A university-wide commitment to One Harvard, President Drew Faust’s powerful vision for cross-School collaboration; 2) University-wide commitment to diversity, inclusion, and belonging; and 3) Our Longwood-based Schools and affiliated institutions, working more collaboratively than ever before with the shared goal of contributing to a better, more equitable world for all.

 Dean William and Harvard President Drew Faust (photo credit the Harvard Gazette)

MASCO: In the midst of studies for your undergraduate degree in biology and genetics and your advanced degrees in epidemiology, you earned a civil engineering degree from Tufts. How did that fit into your plan?

Dean Williams: I was at a proverbial crossroads after completing my undergraduate degree. I loved biology and developmental genetics was exciting. However, I wanted to contribute to solving problems in society and the laboratory did not seem like the right place for me. In my search for academic programs that offered opportunities for integrating biological sciences with a solutions-thinking framework, I discovered the program at Tufts. My studies at Tufts led me to public health and epidemiology (the basic science of public health) and I’ve never looked back.    

MASCO: What advice would you give your 20-year old self today?

Dean Williams: I’m reading a fascinating book entitled “The Healing Self” by Deepak Chopra and Rudolph Tanzi. The authors provide a beautifully written, compellingly holistic and scientifically integrative narrative documenting how lifelong wellness lies inside each of us. I encourage young people to never lose sight of the fact that the choices that they make today are crucial to lifelong wellness.

MASCO: What is your favorite lunch or coffee spot in Longwood?

Dean Williams: That’s easy. Sebastian’s Café, on the ground floor of our Kresge Building, is by far the best place to grab a cup of coffee, have a healthy meal, and visit with the extraordinary staff.