Three standing women in conversation

Exchanging Ideas with NIH Director Monica Bertagnolli

May 16, 2024

Dean Linda P. Fried hosted National Institutes of Health Director Monica Bertagnolli on May 14 to join a group of Columbia Mailman faculty for a luncheon discussion of public health research—much of which is funded by the NIH.

Bertagnolli was the 2024 Class Day speaker and recipient of the School’s Visionary Leadership Award. Appointed late last year, she is the seventeenth director and second woman to lead the NIH in its history. As NIH Director, she provides leadership to 27 Institutes and Centers, overseeing a staff of 18,000 and a budget of more than $47 billion. Of schools of public health, Columbia Mailman now ranks third in the country for NIH Prime Awards.

In opening remarks, the NIH Director shared several new initiatives, including a major re-envisioning of clinical data infrastructure, a community-based research network to further health equity, and a partnership with the Food and Drug Administration to serve people with rare diseases. Given the rapid pace of biomedical discoveries, “it’s such an exciting time” to lead the NIH, Bertagnolli enthused. Yet discoveries aren’t enough, she said, adding, “Our research is only done when all people are living long and healthy lives.”

Close to 20 faculty from all six Columbia Mailman academic departments presented their wide-ranging research projects funded through numerous NIH institutes and all manner of grant types, from R01 research grants and career development awards to fellowships and larger program and center grants. Dean Katrina Armstrong, CEO of the Columbia Irving Medical Center, and Dina Dublon, Chair of the Columbia Mailman Board of Advisors, also spoke.

Senior faculty members spoke about research projects that the NIH has funded for decades, both building knowledge and improving health. Wafaa El-Sadr, professor of Epidemiology and Medicine and director of ICAP at Columbia, and Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity, have both led impactful research projects on HIV and other infectious disease threats supported in part by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Kiros Berhane, chair of Biostatistics; Gary Miller, Vice Dean for Research Strategy and Innovation; Ana Navas-Acien, incoming chair of Environmental Health Sciences; and Virginia Rauh, professor of Population and Family Health have all been funded through the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). Navas-Acien also leads two NIH-supported community-participatory research centers focused on environmental health in New York City and the Northern Plains. 

Not surprisingly, the power of prevention was another theme in the research faculty presented. For example, research by Kathleen Sikkema, chair of Sociomedical Sciences, and Charlie Branas, chair of Epidemiology, is geared toward identifying avenues for intervention on HIV and gun violence, respectively. Sikkema is supported by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and Branas, by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). In response to these and other projects, Bertagnolli voiced support for prevention efforts and “finding sweet spots where we can intervene.”

Several early and mid-career faculty credited NIH funding with launching their public health careers. Annie Nigra, ‘20 PhD, who joined the Environmental Health Sciences faculty in 2021 and studies drinking water, was one of only ten scientists awarded a prestigious NIH Director’s Early Independence Award that year. Danny Giovenco, assistant professor in Sociomedical Sciences, received the same award in 2016, kick-starting his research on how tobacco marketing influences health disparities. Giovenco said he is grateful for the award “for helping me lay the groundwork for my current research,” which now includes e-cigarettes and cannabis.

Another way NIH supports research advances is support for the next generation of public health scientists and leaders. Jeff Goldsmith, Associate Dean for Data Science, leads the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)-supported Biostatistics Epidemiology Summer Training (BEST) program, which since launching in 2007, has created opportunities for underrepresented minorities in public health. Several BEST grads have gone on to pursue further study at Columbia Mailman. Allison Aiello, an epidemiologist in the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center, spoke about another way NIH supports student success. Aiello is deputy director of one of the largest longitudinal studies of adolescent health in the U.S., which has been ongoing since the mid-1990s. The National Institute on Aging (NIA)-supported study has served as the basis for over 9,000 publications and 900 student theses and dissertations. The most recent example, a thesis on the impact of strength training on cognitive function was completed by Jason Joseph, a member of the Columbia Mailman Class of 2024.

Beyond specific projects, the luncheon discussion also touched on the key role played by schools of public health in supporting a diverse public health workforce, grant-writing strategies (explain how your research project will benefit people five years in the future, Bertagnolli offered), team science, and the need for investments in public health research and public health workforce. Looking ahead, the NIH director pointed to investments in pandemic prevention, omics research, and with Congressional support, a major expansion of computational capabilities.

In concluding remarks, Dean Fried conveyed her gratitude to Bertagnolli, saying, “We’re all on the same journey together, to create knowledge and create health and create a healthy population both in this country and around the world.”

Photo by Leslye Smith.