Apr. 19 2019

An event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Department of Sociomedical Sciences reflected on the past and looked ahead to the future, demonstrating the unique power of the social sciences to address a broad range of health challenges and advance health equity.

The origins of the department were also the origins of a field. In 1968, Columbia Mailman became the first school of public health to offer a graduate degree in the social sciences with a focus on health. More than just a methodology, Sociomedical Sciences, or “SMS,” has demonstrated a commitment to promoting justice, reducing health disparities, and addressing the social determinants of health.

“This commitment reflects the department’s founding during the social and political upheavals of the 1960s,” said Dean Linda P. Fried. “This spirit continues to animate the work that SMS faculty, staff, and students do every single day.”

The department’s emphasis on health equity was highlighted in a video in which faculty and students reflect on their work in research, education, and practice, capturing what Interim Chair James Colgrove called “the essence of what makes SMS special.” (Watch the video below.)

Among those attending the April 11 celebration in Bard Hall were former Sociomedical Sciences chairs Cheryl Healton and Lisa Rosen-Metsch and the sons of Jack Elinson, the department’s founding chair. Kathleen Sikkema, the department’s incoming chair, spoke about future directions for the department. Remarks by senior faculty members Bob Fullilove and Ron Bayer bookended the event.

faculty and alumni reflect

A panel discussion between faculty touched on the ways that Sociomedical Sciences has provided a supportive home for a diversity of disciplines and research interests—health communications, history and ethics, mass incarceration, the urban environment, sexuality, stigma, and more.

Kim Hopper, an anthropologist who works on homelessness, pointed to the unique makeup of the department as a deciding factor in his decision to pursue a doctoral degree and then later join the faculty: “It was interdisciplinary, fond of argument, practice-oriented, and heavily political,” he said. “It was a perfect niche for academic misfits like myself.”

Marni Sommer, who like Hopper also earned her doctoral degree in SMS before joining the faculty, thanked her colleagues for helping her blaze a trail in her study of the public health dimensions of menstruation. “This department has deeply shaped my ability to overcome the pushback I got to go down the road to look at this issue,” she said.

Alumni speakers, too, reflected on the support they received, from their studies through to their successful careers.

Chelsea Davis, MPH 2012, and Sara Shoener, DrPH 2014, both work for the City of New York and have collaborated on efforts to reform incarceration, including a recent initiative that allows incarcerated women to reconnect with their children once a month at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan. That initiative wouldn’t have happened had the two not forged a friendship through SMS, said Schoener.

Michael Yudell, PhD 2008, a professor and chair of community health and prevention at Drexel University, credited his career to the Center for History, which he said gave him the lens to examine topics like genomics and race. Nadia Islam, PhD 2007, associate professor at NYU, said the department “played a huge role in my life” in her studies of health disparities and that half her research staff are SMS graduates.

Future Directions

In July, Kathleen Sikkema, a clinical psychologist who has led pioneering scholarship on HIV and mental health, will officially become the new department chair. At the anniversary event, she pointed to the relevance of social sciences research in health (social and behavioral factors account for an estimated half of all premature deaths in the U.S.) and looked ahead to some of the biggest challenges of the coming decades.

Sikkema predicted that faculty and students will grapple with issues from population aging and urbanization to the emergence of new infectious diseases and the proliferation of chronic diseases—particularly mental illness. Depression alone is projected to be the leading cause of global disease burden by 2030, surpassing cardiovascular disease.   

In her estimation, the Department of Sociomedical Sciences is uniquely qualified to address the syndemic nature of these and other challenges which are exacerbated in combination. “The department’s strongly rooted foundation in interdisciplinary social sciences is well placed to take on the challenges of the future,” Sikkema said. “To continue on our path, we must be visionary and understand how the world is rapidly changing, and how the social sciences will grow and uniquely contribute to achieving equity in health.”