For noted medical sociologist and public health scholar Lisa Metsch, her new position as chair of the Department of Sociomedical Sciences (SMS) is a homecoming of sorts. Though Dr. Metsch has spent the past two decades in Florida, she was born in Brooklyn and grew up on Long Island. She earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology at Columbia in 1990 (along with a history and philosophy degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America). She even has early ties to our SMS department, having worked as an undergraduate with Eugene Litwak, who headed what is now known as SMS from 1985 to 1996. Little could she have imagined that she would one day succeed this early mentor.
Dr. Metsch arrives at the Mailman School in July not only as SMS chair but also as the first incumbent of the Stephen Smith Professorship, a newly endowed chair. She is an internationally recognized leader in the prevention of HIV among populations with substance abuse problems. She built that reputation through her influential work at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, where she was professor of Epidemiology and Public Health and director of the Division of Health Services Research and Policy, with secondary appointments in the Departments of Medicine and Sociology. She was also director of the Behavioral/Social Sciences and Community Outreach Core of the University’s Developmental Center for AIDS Research.
Dr. Metsch’s long-term interest in HIV/AIDS was kindled during her years as a Columbia undergrad, when she worked at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center with SMS Professor Karolynn Siegel on one of the first studies of barriers to HIV testing among gay men. As a volunteer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, she witnessed first-hand the devastating impact of the AIDS epidemic. "To visit patients with HIV you had to wear protective clothing," Dr. Metsch recalls, "I saw fearful families shun their loved ones and young people watch their friends die."
Those early experiences set the stage for a career that has flourished at the intersection of research, policy, and program implementation as Dr. Metsch adopted a social science perspective to investigate HIV prevention and develop targeted interventions in populations that have often been neglected.
A Social Science Lens on HIV Prevention
With her sociology background, Dr. Metsch, who has a PhD in medical sociology from the University of Florida, appreciated that social sciences provided the perspective and tools to examine how public health problems are embedded in social, cultural, economic, and political contexts. Dr. Metsch was one of the first researchers in the era of antiretroviral therapy to articulate the importance of creating prevention/primary care programs for people living with HIV, not simply those at risk of infection. She was part of the multi-site team funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that developed and tested the first evidence-based linkage to care intervention for individuals who were newly diagnosed with HIV. Dr. Metsch also serves as one of the principal investigators of the Florida Node Alliance of the National Drug Abuse Treatment Clinical Trials Network.
Her current work focuses on developing innovative strategies to increase the uptake of testing, linkage, retention, and re-engagement in care among vulnerable populations. For example, she is funded by the National Institute on Dental and Craniofacial Research to explore the feasibility of offering HIV testing in dental care settings. Dr. Metsch’s landmark research has also helped to shape national policy and intervention programs. Her findings were cited in testimonies before the Senate Finance Committee in the reauthorization of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996. More recently, Dr. Metsch completed a study that demonstrated the value of integrating HIV testing in substance use treatment programs. Her findings were the basis for the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to develop an HIV awareness toolkit for substance use treatment providers.
A prolific researcher, she has received more than $60 million in grant funding and is currently running multiple NIH studies. Dr. Metsch also chairs the NIH study section—BSPH—Behavioral and Social Sciences Approaches to Preventing HIV/AIDS. Among her newer projects is a collaboration with the SMS Department’s Center for the Psychosocial Study of Illness. Under the leadership of the Center’s Dr. Marilena Lekas, Dr. Metsch is launching a qualitative study with HIV-positive hospital patients who have been out of care for at least six months. Dr. Metsch’s commitment to research is matched by a passion for teaching.
She credits her parents, Steve and Sandra Rosen, both New York City high school teachers, with passing along their love of teaching and the understanding that a good teacher takes the time to respond to the individual needs of students. Her work with doctoral and masters students at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine garnered her high praise, including the 2011 Public Health Student Association’s Lecturer of the Year Award.
Dr. Metsch moved to New York City with her husband, Ben, and three young daughters—Morgan (14), Sophia (6), and Gabriella (4). In her role as SMS chair, she hopes to foster stronger collaborations among SMS faculty members, while building on and strengthening ties across the School, the University, and with critical community partners. “We know now that it is unacceptable to solely focus on individual behavior to understand disease risk,” explains Dr. Metsch. “A social science perspective is critical to developing interventions for significant public health challenges such as obesity, emerging infectious diseases, an aging society, and the associated growing chronic disease burden. I believe that the SMS department is uniquely suited to take a leadership role in this area.”