What was the most transformative course from your undergraduate education?
I’m grateful to have been able to take several courses that I’d say were “transformative”, but if I had to choose one, it would be an introductory sociology course I took during my junior year. While we learned the fundamentals and major theories of the field, the course was taught very much through a lens of social justice and health inequity and drew upon domestic case studies that brought sociology to life. The content – including food insecurity and poor educational opportunities – was emotional and weighty, but our professor was gifted in his ability to inspire and empower us to learn more about the challenges around us and to be active citizens. This course was profound and deepened my commitment as a physician and public health practitioner to working with underserved communities, addressing the social determinants of health through programs and policies, and advancing the common good.
You majored in art history, but later earned two masters’ degrees in health and a medical degree. How did you make this transition?
There certainly was an element of transition (though having minored in chemistry it was not as severe as it may have otherwise been). One of my favorite art history classes was one on Japanese brush painting, yet the world of Japanese painters and those who commissioned their work centuries ago bears no resemblance to the present US. Learning to be a physician and later studying our complex health care system required different knowledge, skills and approaches than those I had develop while studying art history. But a liberal arts education encourages having multiple interests. It was a transition but not an either/or situation. I did not have to give up my enjoyment of art and art history in order to pursue medicine. While I could perhaps not devote my time to it the way I had in college, it recognized it would certainly be there even as I developed my clinical and public health skills.
Does your arts background make you a better public health practitioner today?
I like to think it does. Art is a wonderful way to learn history, as the art and the artists bring the period to life. While studying art, one learns about the people, places, events, ideas and values of the time. Public health is rarely defined by something as individual and discrete as a work of art, but it is a rich field in which one must understand the stakeholders involved, where they live, what they believe and how they act. Art has given me an appreciation for the breadth and depth of an issue. I’m reminded to look at public health issues from different angles, much the same way I might look at the different layers and influences of a painting or sculpture.
On a more concrete level, my background in art has informed how I think about messaging health ideas or concepts to the public. Just as different people react differently to art, they will react differently to a media campaign. What do we want to convey to the public? What medium should we use? What images or text will we show? I’m fortunate to work with colleagues whose expertise is in communications and who guide our department’s work, but I nonetheless hope that my arts background allows me to appreciate their approach and contribute.
You recently received the Common Good Award from Bowdoin and are a Presidential Leadership Scholar. People often connect the liberal arts to active citizenship. Why do you care about public service and what are some pressing public health issues that you care right now?
As a primary care physician, I’m grateful for the relationships I’ve developed with my patients and the opportunity to support their wellbeing. But when so much of health is determined beyond clinic walls – and instead by environments and social circumstances – I’ve always been drawn to doing what I can to improve the health of communities. And it has been tremendously rewarding to pursue this in public service, where my colleagues and I are driven by our mission and consider the needs of all city residents when conducting our work. It is this commitment to advancing the “common good” that inspires me to continue in public service. I am humbled to have received the Common Good Award and extremely grateful for my experience as a Presidential Leadership Scholar, where learning from leaders at the highest level of government taught me so much about myself and how I can best contribute to the greater good.
My focus right now is on substance use as a public health issue. Like everywhere in the country, Philadelphia has been devastated by the opioid crisis. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear someone tell me how their life has been affected by the crisis and, too often, that they knew someone who either died or is struggling with an addiction. Our work focuses not only on prevention, treatment and harm reduction, but also stigma, and the role it plays in perpetuating the harms associated with substance use.
Phi Beta Kappa's motto is "the love of learning is the guide of life." What do you want to learn next?
Public health is a wonderful field in that it is so collaborative. I learn from colleagues in health departments across the country, health systems, academia, philanthropy, and social service agencies, and I look forward to continuing to share ideas with each other to improve our communities’ health. Professionally, I’m eager to learn more about management in order to better support my staff and their development.
Personally, I’d love to learn another language. It didn’t come naturally to me in high school and my mind may be even less malleable now, but I’d like to give it another shot. It would exercise a very different part of my brain and, although difficult, I think is something I’d really enjoy. Perhaps Spanish or Japanese. And lastly, I’ve been saying this for a while but haven’t attempted it yet, I’d like to learn how to ride a unicycle. Having wanted to be a street performer when I was young, it’s the one skill that stuck with me in terms of things I’d like to learn!
What books are you reading currently? Are you listening to any podcasts? Anything you'd recommend?
I recently read When Breath Becomes Air
, a touching memoir by Dr. Paul Kalanithi as he lived and coped with metastatic lung cancer until his final days. I’ve switched gears for some lighter summer reading and recently began The Cruelest Month
, a murder mystery by Louise Penny.
I haven’t gotten into podcasts, though I really enjoy watching TED videos. It’s such an incredible collection of speakers whose talks and ideas are consistently thought-provoking, challenging and entertaining. Although I may not necessarily delve deeper into their areas of expertise after I’ve watched their presentation, they’ve still broadened my horizons, introduced me to yet another area of our diverse world, and nurtured that desire for lifelong learning.
Do you have any advice for our new members inducted this spring as they transition to life after college?
The time right after college is unique and exciting. You’re not likely to be the same person you were when you started. You’ve had a wealth of experiences to learn from and build upon, while you also have nearly infinite options before you. If you have the chance, I’d encourage you to take that time to explore pursuits that are meaningful to you. Even if you have a sense of what your next step is or should be – be it a specific job, going graduate school or another path – consider taking a moment to reflect on your college experience, your values and pursue interests that resonate with you and make you happy. I was fortunate to take two years between college and medical school, during which I did a mix of volunteering, working and traveling. By the time I started medical school, these experiences had made me more appreciative of being in the “real world” and I think helped me approach school from a more informed place. I recognize that not everyone needs to, can or should carve time for self-discovery, but at the least I’d encourage new members to take some time for reflection.