Robert Nelb: Why Public Health?

This spring, when I wanted to avoid working on papers and projects, when I was tired of looking for jobs and worried about paying off my student debt, I found solace in the latest addition to the Yale Public Health community, our new, totally unofficial, public health blog.

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On this simple site, I could flip through photos of the desserts at our latest happy hour, I could watch YouTube videos with SAYPH’s advice on how to Mingle Till You Tingle, and I could follow the triumphs and the ultimate tragedy of our beloved Outbreak softball team.

In addition, I could also read about the great speakers coming to campus, like the President of Liberia, who just came to thank Yale for helping to improve the country’s health care system. I could see the impact that our school was having at community events, like the recent AIDS Walk, where YSPH brought the largest team in all of New Haven, helping the event raise over $30,000. Best of all, I could follow the latest adventures and accomplishments of the amazing people who make this place so special.

Indeed, with over one thousand visits and nearly one hundred posts, this blog has quickly become a microcosm of our School of Public Health, and a reminder of why I love it so much.

Now, in case you’re trying to Google Y Public Health (dot) blogspot (dot) com on your smartphone right now, I should warn you that it’s not so easy to find. The title doesn’t begin with letter “Y” as in Yale, but rather with the question why – W-H-Y. The reason for this play on words is purely practical, of course – I may not be graduating here today if the Yale Corporation found out that I used the their name to post pictures from wine tasting or videos of Borat.

Nonetheless, today, on this graduation day, the wording seems to hold a deeper meaning. After two years of learning how to do public health, it’s fitting to reflect on why we do public health. What is our reason, what is our motivation, what is our purpose? If you’re anything like me, I’m sure that you’ve had trouble explaining to your parents what this field is all about, and so, with friends and family around us today, now is our chance to set the story straight.

A basic definition of why you’ve been studying public health these past few years might naturally begin with your coursework – the set of skills you’ve gained from this place – epidemiology, study design, policy analysis, etc. We study public health because it is interesting, because it challenges us to think outside the box, and gives us a set of tools to understand some of the world’s most pressing challenges. CEA Winslow, the founder of the Yale School of Public Health famously defines the field as “the science and art of preventing disease and promoting health.” At Yale, we are blessed to receive a world-class education from faculty who are both renowned scholars of science and wonderful practitioners of the art of compassion.

But of course, anyone who has spent too long in the windowless Winslow auditorium can tell you that the subject matter is not enough to explain why we do what we do. We need some sunlight! Public health is an applied science that aims to take what we know and make a difference in the lives of others. Our class knows this lesson well, and in just a few short years here, we’ve already made a tangible impact: we’ve fought to make New Haven’s streets safer, we’ve delivered health education in El Salvador, and hopefully later this month we will have helped to pass comprehensive health reform here in Connecticut.

And yet, while it easy to list our accomplishments, we also know that the work of public health is not so simple. We don’t always succeed, and along the way, there seem to be a million roadblocks: We try a new intervention and find a null result. We publish a study that few people read. We speak truth to policymakers only to see further inaction. And so we must return to the central question: why, why do we even try?

Something deeper must pull us on to do this work of public health. Something more than outcomes and evaluation metrics. Something more than fame or fortune. Something more, something greater than ourselves.

This driving spirit, I think, is with us here today. I’ve seen it in the hugs of friends and family. I’ve seen it in the shared stories on our new blog. I’ve seen it on the streets of Dixwell and Dakar. It is the spirit of community, the belief that helping the least among us makes us all stronger, the faith in our greater humanity, that truly drives us on to do the work of public health. This is our motivation. This is our purpose.

Unfortunately, this spirit is sorely missing in our world these days, and outside of the comforts of Yale, it may be easy to forget the calling of community. We live in a world where Wall Street bankers tempt us with short-term profits at the expense of long-term interests. Where gated communities allow us to live in comfortable ease rather than confront the disparities in our midst. And where even our neighbors ask us how much we make, rather than how much we give.

At the end of the day, however, it is precisely because the challenge is so hard, because the odds are so steep, that our work of public health is needed now more than ever before. We may not know everything and we may not always succeed, but together we can make our communities just a little bit stronger. And so, Class of 2009, as we go forth today into the wide-open world, hold fast to your Yale Public Health degree, your Why Public Health degree. May we always remember why we do what we do.

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