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21st Century Science

Collaboration is in our DNA, Equity in our Heart

Historically, much of a scientist’s work happened isolated in individual laboratories. Physicians treated individual patients for anything that ailed them. But the modern era of science and medicine has changed the paradigm.

University of California San Diego has a rich history of embracing collaboration to prevent disease and advance scientific discovery, dissemination and implementation. And, by encouraging collaboration over competition, the newly established Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science at UC San Diego is transforming the university’s ability to apply multidisciplinary approaches to contemporary public health challenges.

“UC San Diego has no boundaries, no borders. We can walk across the street and in five minutes we are sitting with faculty in other academic areas like engineering, arts and humanities, or biological sciences. We can walk across a bridge and be at our own academic hospital,” said Cheryl A.M. Anderson, Ph.D., M.P.H., founding dean of the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science and Hood Family Endowed Dean’s Chair in Public Health.

“The proximity to scholarly exchange with individuals from multiple disciplines and the integration with the delivery of health care are our strengths. By approaching public health problems with diverse perspectives, we can do things bigger, better and brighter when more brains are brought to the table.”

Two researchers study a beaker in a science lab.

In its first year as a school, the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health set its eyes on addressing six key public health issues: climate change and the environment; global health and disease; mental health and addictions; healthy aging and longevity science; health services/learning health care systems; and equity.

Public health is the science of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through organized community efforts that ensure every citizen can equitably achieve health and longevity.

Wellbeing and Social Justice for All

“A 40-year-old man in the bottom 1% of the income distribution in the United States can expect to die 15 years sooner than a 40-year-old man in the top 1%. I find that a shocking and shameful fact,” said Richard Kronick, Ph.D., a professor studying health policy and health care financing.

“A central challenge of public health, and of the goal of achieving healthy aging, is to reduce that disparity. Many of my colleagues at UC San Diego in behavioral health, preventive medicine, biostatistics, epidemiology, climate and health, environmental health and like myself in health policy, are committed to achieving that goal.”

Some Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health researchers, like Maria Elena Martinez, Ph.D., Sam M. Walton Endowed Chair for Cancer Research, dedicate their careers to equity in public health.

Martinez began her career in academia as one of a few public health professionals focused on health care disparities. Her voice, academic scholarship and leadership made her a clear choice to be named among 28 distinguished individuals to the Blue Ribbon Panel to help inform the scientific direction at the National Cancer Institute, part of President Joe Biden’s National Cancer Moonshot Initiative.

“We have done a lot of research to understand what causes different kinds of cancer. Public health is about engaging with our communities to relay this information to help them adopt the healthy lifestyles that are needed to prevent the disease,” said Martinez.

“Offering public health and opportunities for a healthy life across the lifespan is about health equity. Everyone must benefit from the opportunities that we discover at this amazing institution.”

Tala Al-Rousan, M.D., M.P.H., is using technology and social networking to develop innovative public health interventions for refugees and asylum seekers to live healthier and longer lives and can reach their full potential in their new homes.

“We have never seen such high numbers of refugees and displaced people in modern history. There is a huge research gap on the impact of displacement on health, which hinders progress in preserving our collective humanity. Through innovative research we can offer refugees and hosting communities solutions for better public health for all,” said Al-Rousan.

In 2020, the number of refugees broke a world record. According to the UN Refugee Agency, 82.4 million people are now displaced and struggling to find homes elsewhere. That number has grown by more than 50% in the last 10 years. COVID-19 is adding to the discrimination and inequity faced by those who are displaced as more restrictions to mobility and delays to asylum processing are being seen along with inadequate access to vaccines.

Wael Al-Delaimy, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Global Mental Health Initiative, a consortium of several United States universities focused on mental health in the Middle East and San Diego.

Al-Delaimy is also director of the state-wide California American Indian Tobacco Initiative Evaluation, which conducts an independent examination of the impact and outcomes of the “American Indian Tobacco Initiative” to reduce tobacco-related disparities. Part of Al-Delaimy’s work involves capacity building in these populations and abroad where he trains professionals on research ethics, policy, climate change and environmental health, and tobacco control.

“Our work on global mental health has shown refugees as the most vulnerable populations to mental illnesses and trauma and the impacts of trauma are transmitted from one generation to another,” said Al-Delaimy.

Access to the latest therapies and medical technologies can be limiting factors. Genome sequencing, for example, is being used in a variety of medical settings to diagnose disease or to determine if a particular treatment will benefit a patient.

“One problem with the current interpretation of genome sequencing scans is that it’s based on previous studies that have been done almost entirely with people of European background. When we start to think about scaling up genome sequencing, or other technology like wearable sensors, it becomes problematic to use it in non-European populations because the interpretation may not be accurate,” said Cinnamon Bloss, Ph.D., professor and interim assistant dean for academic affairs.

“What we can do as public health professionals is think about ways in which we can improve that interpretation and make that technology more equitable. I think another unique strength of UC San Diego is our expertise in human-centered design. I see collaborations between design, public health and engineering, in addition to other specialties.”

Eric Hekler, Ph.D., professor and interim associate dean for community partnerships, leads a multidisciplinary research program, the Center for Wireless and Population Health Systems (CWPHS), with UC San Diego collaborators in The Design Lab, School of Medicine, Division of Social Sciences and Jacobs School of Engineering.

Housed in the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), CWPHS is a center of excellence with the mission to connect, translate and synthesize efforts in human-centered digital health.

“The social and built environments, behavior, microbiome, and epigenetics dynamically interact in real-world contexts to foster or undermine health of individuals and populations. We are advancing a transdisciplinary precision health approach that melds together community-centered, -driven, and -led efforts that is explicitly anti-oppressive with the use of digital technologies and systems science methods,” said Hekler.

“Our approach is to seek to address all underlying drivers — not merely symptoms which is more common in research — that undermine and foster individual and population health. Given our precision focus, we are committed to serving historically underserved communities as a structural mechanism for advancing health equity, as the alternative of building first among well-resourced individuals often propagates inequities.”

A woman speaks to a family at the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan.

“UC San Diego has no boundaries, no borders. We can walk across the street and in five minutes we are sitting with faculty in engineering. We can walk across a bridge and be at our own academic hospital.”

Cheryl A.M. Anderson, Ph.D., M.P.H., founding dean of the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science.

Big Data

“In biostatistics, we are collaborative by nature. We talk to scientists in many different areas—public health, medicine, biology, environmental sciences and other fields—about questions that they need answered to solve a problem. We discuss the data they can collect to help them make the inferences that they need in order to answer their questions,” said Armin Schwartzman, Ph.D., a professor whose research involves development of statistical methods for signal and image analysis, with biomedical and environmental applications.

Biostatistics is playing a big role in problem solving and in public health.

Loki Natarajan, Ph.D., professor and interim associate dean for research, has worked on studies investigating dietary interventions for breast cancer recurrence, the impact of physical activity on postmenopausal women and patients with diabetes who are most likely to suffer kidney failure.

Natarajan enjoys the challenge of looking at data and developing mathematical models to find meaning. She likes the fact that in medicine, problems don’t come with clean answers.

“It takes creativity to make sure that you don’t make so many assumptions that your conclusions are totally removed from reality – and of no help to real people,” said Natarajan.

But big data offers both great opportunity and a grand challenge.

“People think more data is better. But that’s not always true,” said Karen Messer, Ph.D., professor and chief of the Division of Biostatistics.

“To pull it all together, we need a variety of expertise, including statisticians, other data scientists, computer scientists, even designers.”

That’s what the Halıcıoğlu Data Science Institute at UC San Diego is trying to do. The institute advances the field of data science by exploring principles, methods and tools that enable researchers to understand the nature of digital data and the interactions of this growing field to address and solve society’s most pressing problems.

“You want to be able to look at a world holistically and understand how we live in a big system where there is interaction between our environment, our population, our behavior, our health and everything that we do on a day-to-day basis,” said Schwartzman.

He sees the Halıcıoğlu Data Science Institute as a way to develop high-tech engineering solutions to problems in medicine, to connect social science research with social networks to understand how diseases are transmitted among people, and by partnering with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to look at the impact of climate-sensitive environmental exposures on population health.

Tarik Benmarhnia, Ph.D., associate professor, has a unique niche of combining expertise in epidemiologic study design and health risk assessment with climate and econometric models.

Climate change and COVID-19 are arguably the two greatest crises of our time. The other thing they have in common is the fact that they disproportionately affect the same people — primarily underserved populations and communities of color. Benmarhnia looks at environmental justice and the role it plays in the health of a community, whether that’s due to an infectious disease, pollutants, heat waves or wildfires.

If structural fundamental causes of these issues and these inequalities can be improved, Benmarhnia says, communities can be more resilient.

Ultimately, that is the goal of the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health — advancing wellbeing and social justice for all.

“The Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health’s research activities are enriched by the inclusion of our diverse and intellectually curious student body,” said Richard Garfein, Ph.D., M.P.H., professor and interim assistant dean for research.

UC San Diego faculty engage with trainees at all levels — from the undergraduate public health degree program to the post-doctoral fellowships — to provide hands-on research experience to the next generation of public health practitioners and scientists.

“Our trainees bring a broad range of unique sociocultural perspectives to our research teams that help inform and guide research that is inclusive from conception to dissemination of findings,” said Garfein.

The school is venturing into spaces that are contemporary and with UC San Diego’s multidisciplinary and collaborative culture, as well as its proximity to Mexico, the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health has a rare opportunity to develop and implement solutions addressing emerging border and global health challenges as few universities can.

A masked health professional examines a person on a table.