By MARTY LEVINE
When she interviewed to become the new dean of the Graduate School of Public Health, Maureen Lichtveld, who started on Jan. 1, said “it was clear that Pittsburgh and particularly the University of Pittsburgh have a tremendous amount of assets … but those assets were not quite connected.”
“We don’t look good from a public health perspective,” she said, noting a Pitt study comparing Pittsburgh to 89 other cities that found the city nearly the worst in maternal and fetal deaths, and in cancer and cardiovascular disease. “We know, unfortunately, that where we live determines your health, and we have to stop that in Pittsburgh. We need to address the root causes of environmental health (issues).”
Plus, of course, the world is still in the midst of the largest public health crisis of our lifetimes.
“My motto is always ‘Making science work for communities,’ ” Lichtveld said. So her top goal for the school is to increase student and faculty connections to the community and its public health concerns.
Her plans also include bringing local high school students to the school for a summer program and creating its first undergraduate degree — which will essentially remove the G from GSPH.
“One of my highest priorities is precision public health,” she said, which brings an interdisciplinary practice to tackling community-based problems with community-based assets. “We will go to the community and address the community’s public health threats.”
She also likes that the School of Medicine and the Swanson School of Engineering are just up the hill, providing opportunities for what she called “a trans-disciplinary approach” to faculty work.
To bring the community here — and to begin to grow the pipeline of public health sciences professionals from the undergraduate level — she is developing Pitt’s first bachelor of science in public health degree. It will require that students do 120 hours of service learning in the community alongside health-sciences practitioners and other scientists already at work in the world.
She also plans to open a public health sciences academy at the school for local high school students, especially from the public schools, to begin exploring public health subjects and earn scholarships to enroll here in the future. Academy students will have the chance to work with data and personnel from health departments at the county and state level, she said.
In addition to the community focus, she intends to bring a more global focus to the education and research conducted at the school.
Asked about her first impression of Pitt, she could only say “I haven’t seen much of the campus because I came in the middle of a pandemic,” but added, “I was in awe of the Cathedral.”
Previously, she was chair of Tulane University’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences in the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and directed the Center for Gulf Coast Environmental Health Research, Leadership and Strategic Initiatives at Tulane as well. She also served 18 years with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
One of the problems with our handling of the pandemic is that we didn’t treat it as a public health issue right away, she said. “In the beginning, a year ago, we approached the pandemic as a clinical problem — ‘if only we had enough hospitals’ — but the pandemic is a public health issue.” Public health solutions — masking, distancing, contact tracing — at the beginning were “minimally at the table, or their guidance was ignored.”
The biggest public health solution now, of course, is the vaccination, said Lichtveld — who is also the Jonas Salk Professor of Population Health at the school. “The quintessential issue is that a vaccine is not only to protect you, it is to protect you and your family. If you care about your family, (you will be vaccinated). It’s your family where you study. It’s your family where you go to the grocery store. These are your family.”
Lichtveld also plans to bring in new Black and underrepresented minorities as faculty in the school. “We have to look at the way the community surrounding us looks, and we don’t look that way,” she said.
Expect to hear more about the school in the future, she said: She is also hiring a communications director “so what we do and what we study becomes more meaningful” locally, from board rooms to government offices.
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-758-4859.
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