Jan. 16 2015
Mailman School Faculty Learn the Art of the Op-Ed

Prof. Tal Gross is used to a lively audience. His courses in health systems and health economics are perennially mentioned among students’ favorites at the Mailman School of Public Health. But Gross, an assistant professor of Health Policy and Management, never before experienced a response as deafening as the 633 public comments he received about an op-ed published in the Washington Post on December 30, 2014: “This year, I resolve to ban laptops from my classroom.”

newspapers-280x328.jpegGross was a member of the inaugural class of Public Voices Fellows, a yearlong initiative that brings Columbia faculty face-to-face with journalists and other writers for mentoring, discussion, and collaboration. With an eye towards expanding the breadth and quality of ideas that appear in influential media, Public Voices helps faculty members like Gross compete in the marketplace of ideas outside of the academy. Over the span of a few months, he successfully placed op-eds in Al Jazeera America and The Hill, in addition to his attention-getting New Year’s piece in Washington Post.

Jointly organized by the Department of Medicine and the Op-Ed Project, the Public Voices Fellowship came to Columbia University Medical Center through the foresight of Henry Lodge, the Robert L. Burch Family Professor of Medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and the generosity of Burch himself.

“The new world of digital communication offers an exciting avenue for faculty to communicate accurate information, and educate the public on a host of critical issues in medicine, biology and public health,” Lodge said. His vision for Public Voices also welcomes faculty from Columbia’s Morningside campus and physicians and researchers from Physicians and Surgeons.

Dana March, assistant professor of Epidemiology, also thrived as a 2014 Public Voices Fellow. Last May, she published an important editorial in USA Today, framing an evidence-based picture of the social disparities of health around the celluloid tearjerker “The Fault in Our Stars.” The audience for March’s critique? Let’s just say that more people see USA Today than live in Los Angeles.

“Researchers, as a whole, need to have a voice beyond the university’s boundaries,” said Gross, who completed his Fellowship last weekend. “Working all year with my writing coach, journalist Lauren Sandler, I learned how to translate my research into a story, to reach new audiences.”

As Gross and March were completing their fellowship, six new faculty members from across the Mailman School were brought into the fold along with other Columbia colleagues. With support from the Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion, the new cohort includes David Bell, assistant professor of Population and Family Health; Jennifer Hirsch, professor of Sociomedical Sciences; Jessica Justman, associate professor of Medicine in ICAP; Marni Sommer, associate professor of Sociomedical Sciences; Claire Wang, associate professor of Health Policy and Management; and Patrick Wilson, associate professor of Sociomedical Sciences.

For Lisa Metsch, chair of Sociomedical Sciences, the goals of the Public Voices Fellowship run tandem to those of the Lerner Center, which she serves as interim director.

“Mailman faculty have an enormous role to play raising the visibility of public health scholarship,” Metsch said. “One of the Center’s goals, as articulated by Sid Lerner, our donor and inspiration, is to take academic work out of the library and put it to work improving population health. The new media landscape is filled with possibility, and I am delighted that our faculty have an opportunity to become pioneers there.”