Moving Forward at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health

November 6, 2023

Teaching the World to Prevent Pandemics

Bode Shobayo, PhD, of Liberia

Bode Shobayo, PhD, of Liberia practices testing in the GAPP lab at Columbia Mailman School. 

Just over a year into its training programs, the Global Alliance for Preventing Pandemics (GAPP) has welcomed researchers and clinicians from Bangladesh, Germany, Mali, Mexico, Nigeria, and Zambia, as well as personnel from the U.S. Department of Defense, to its Columbia Mailman School lab. They are learning how to use VirCapSeq-VERT, a test invented at the School that detects all known viruses that infect people and other vertebrates and discovers new viruses as well. Using it means the global health community can achieve faster, better awareness of emerging infections with fewer samples to analyze. 

GAPP aims to ensure equitable, sustained access to breakthrough diagnostic technology and to promote medical independence and excellent healthcare for all. Each training takes about three weeks. “Then they can return to their lab confident they can use the test effectively, and can train others,” says J. Kenneth Wickiser, PhD, GAPP’s administrative director. A training with Malian partners is one example of GAPP in action: “We have trained their university scientists and their equivalent of the CDC. We are set to supply them with test materials, so they can be up and running, independently. The work will be done by Malians, in Mali, for Malians,” says Wickiser, adding that countries in the global South do not pay for testing materials. “We provide materials; if necessary, we help secure funds.”

Next up? GAPP will add trainings for BacCapSeq, another test created in the School’s Center for Infection and Immunity. It identifies all bacteria with clinical relevance. Says Wickiser, “The more people who adopt these tests and realize they save lives, the closer we get to the goal of GAPP, which is eventually to put ourselves out of business.”

Just the Facts

The Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion hosted its third national conference earlier this year, exploring strategies to debunk misinformation about climate change, abortion, and global vaccinations. An escalation in misinformation and misunderstanding of scientific evidence during the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of this topic. Turning the Tide: Combatting Misinformation in Public Health drew more than 80 attendees and hosted faculty and staff from Columbia University, City University of New York Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, Johns Hopkins University, New York University, Yale University, and more. Journalist Renée Loth, an opinion columnist for The Boston Globe, led a workshop on Op-Ed Writing for Professionals. 

In her keynote presentation, Wen-Ying Sylvia Chou, PhD, MPH, program director in the Health Communication and Informatics Research Branch at the National Cancer Institute, told attendees that communicating about public health and taking on misinformation “isn’t just a matter of having the right skills and using the right tools; it also means you also have to have courage.

Secrets of Chornobyl’s Dogs

dog in chornobyl

In the first step toward understanding how dogs—and perhaps humans—adapt to exposure to radiation, heavy metals, or toxic chemicals, researchers have conducted a pioneering investigation into the genetic structure of two groups of stray dogs living within the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone.

The 1986 Chornobyl nuclear power plant disaster released enormous amounts of ionizing radiation and toxins into the air and water. “Somehow, two small populations of dogs survived in that highly toxic environment,” says Norman J. Kleiman, PhD, assistant professor of Environmental Health Sciences and a study co-author. The two groups, which rarely interbreed, showed significant genetic differences between them. The team confirmed that the two populations were genetically distinct and was able to identify 391 regions in the dogs’ genomes that differed between the two locations. “Some of these markers point to genes associated with genetic repair,” Kleiman says. Understanding the genetic and health impacts on the dogs will strengthen broader understanding of how to mitigate environmental hazards in humans.

Joining Tribal Communities to Fight for Cleaner Water

Columbia University Northern Plains Superfund Research Program researchers and Missouri Breaks staff

Columbia University Northern Plains Superfund Research Program researchers work with the Missouri Breaks staff to sample private wells for arsenic and uranium contamination. From left to right, Rebecca White Bull, Sandy Little, Rae O'Leary, MPH, Randall Hughes, James Ross, Steven Chillirud, PhD, and Anirban Basu, PhD. 

Tribal lands in the Northern Plains are affected by over 15,000 hazardous waste sites and 7,000 abandoned mines. Now a new interdisciplinary partnership aims to reduce exposures to hazardous metals such as uranium and arsenic in drinking water, which play a role in the high rates of heart disease and diabetes affecting rural communities. The Columbia University Northern Plains Superfund Research Program (CUNP-SRP) brings together researchers from Columbia Mailman, the Columbia Climate School, and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, along with community partners at Missouri Breaks in North Dakota and South Dakota. 

“Our mission is to protect water resources in tribal communities from these hazardous metal exposures through the integration of system science, innovative technology, and traditional Indigenous knowledge,” says principal investigator Ana Navas-Acien, MD, PhD, MPH, professor of Environmental Health Sciences. The researchers are working to identify areas where water needs remediation, to trace sources of contamination and pinpoint biological pathways of exposure, and to develop sustainable technologies to treat contaminated water. Community partners will work with researchers on data collection and analysis, and lead dissemination of findings to residents of three communities in North Dakota and South Dakota. 

The program builds on the Strong Heart Study, which linked arsenic and uranium exposures to elevated levels of cardiovascular disease in American Indian communities in the Northern Plains. The study dates to the 1980s, and Navas-Acien has led its environmental work since 2008.

Exploring a Fundamental Question: What Is Health?

Daniel Belsky, PhD

According to the World Health Organization, health is more than the absence of disease. But to better define it, Daniel Belsky, PhD, associate professor of Epidemiology in the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center, is working with an interdisciplinary team which received a Centennial Grand Challenges grant.

How does your project define health?

Belsky: Realized health is the ability of people to do things they want and that society expects of them. We’re trying to understand the biology that underpins that—this is intrinsic health. We’re not focused just on the cellular or tissue level; we want to broadly describe what is required for organisms to experience health.

You propose health is governed by three main factors. Can you elaborate?

Belsky: Energy is crucial to all bodily functions, from movement to healing. Structure is fundamental to the function of DNA, proteins, cells, tissues, and organs. Communication is key to the coordination of biological processes. Intrinsic health is a function of these three factors. It’s not dependent on physical attributes. Someone who doesn’t have the use of all their limbs can still have exceptional intrinsic health. Think of a sprinter who runs on blades.

Where are you with this project now?

Belsky: We’re mapping our theory of intrinsic health onto some exciting new statistical modeling techniques. The goal is to test proof of concept for the network of energy, communication, and structure as a fundamental building block of what people experience as health. Ultimately, we want to develop a simpler way to measure intrinsic health, ideally a blood or saliva test. 

How could this test be used?

Belsky: It could provide a metric for health surveillance or an endpoint for
a clinical trial. This is useful when we’re testing complex interventions that affect multiple health states, such as access to primary care, better water quality, or policies that address social determinants of health. It could become a standard test. I think we’d all like to know our own intrinsic health.

Welcome, New Team Members

Yvonne Ortiz, MEd

Columbia Mailman School has hired two key administrators who will help shape the school in its second century. 

Yvonne Ortiz, MEd, associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), will bring her considerable expertise working with students and educational institutions to deepen and elevate DEI initiatives across the School. Her work will include strengthening the sense of belonging and shared community across the School and supporting the recruitment and retention of students, faculty, and staff from marginalized communities. 

A former university dean of student affairs and medical school director of DEI, Ortiz has a strong history of aligning communities to enhance instruction, leadership, systems, and culture to promote equity.

John Beard, MBBS, PhD

John Beard, MBBS, PhD, Irene Diamond Professor and director of the International Longevity Center-USA, will lead the Center’s work to translate knowledge of global trends in healthy longevity and catalyze societal change that can enable people of all ages to reimagine the second half of life. From 2009 to 2019, Beard was director of the Department of Ageing and Life Course with the World Health Organization, where he led major global initiatives. He has worked extensively with the World Economic Forum, including as chair of their Global Agenda Council on Ageing, and was a commissioner with the recent U.S. National Academy of Medicine Commission on Healthy Longevity. 


Lipkin Joins Task Force

W. Ian Lipkin, MD, the John Snow Professor of Epidemiology and director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia Mailman School, is one of a group of scientists and public health leaders convened by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to be part of a new international task force to consider trends and oversight of high-risk pathogen research. 

Navas-Acien Named to Cancer Advisory Board 

President Joe Biden appointed Ana Navas-Acien, MD, PhD, MPH, to the National Cancer Advisory Board, which plays an important role in guiding the National Cancer Institute. A professor of Environmental Health Sciences and member of the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center, Navas-Acien has more than 300 peer-reviewed publications and leads multiple National Institutes of Health-funded research projects.

Pei Receives Pilot Grant

Sen Pei, PhD, assistant professor of Environmental Health Sciences, is the recipient of a $50,000 pilot grant from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study zoonotic threats. Pei will be one of three principal investigators on a project titled “Impact of Climate Variability on Foreign Animal Disease: Forecasting Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza.” 

De Pinho Selected as Teaching Scholar

Helen de Pinho, MBBCH, MBA, FCCH, associate dean of educational programs and assistant professor in the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health, has been selected to be a 2023 Provost’s Senior Faculty Teaching Scholar. As one of eight from across the University, she will create a plan for supporting, changing, and innovating the culture of teaching and learning within her own department or school and across campus. 

Fried Awarded French Honor

Dean Linda P. Fried, MD, MPH, received the Insignia of the Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest order of merit. The award recognizes her scientific advances on aging and her outstanding public health leadership.

Chowkwanyun Receives Award

Donald H. Gemson Assistant Professor of Sociomedical Sciences Merlin Chowkwanyun, PhD, MPH, is the 2022 recipient of the Milbank Quarterly Early Career Award in Population Health from the Interdisciplinary Association for Population Health Science. The award recognizes significant contributions to population health science by an
individual who has received a PhD or MD in the past 10 years.

Miller Reappointed to Research Advisory Panel

Gary W. Miller, PhD, vice dean for research strategy and innovation, has been invited to serve a second term on the National Institutes of Health’s All of Us Research Program advisory panel. All of Us is collecting data from a diverse group of 1 million U.S. participants for a database that will inform thousands of studies for decades to come. 

Supporting our Work

Transformational gifts and grants from leading donors contributed to a total of $53 million raised for the School in the year ending June 30, 2023.

Susan Lasker Brody, MPH ’97, a dedicated alumna, supporter, and longtime member of the Board of Advisors included provisions in her estate plans of $15 million. The gift will honor her legacy and realize her long-held vision of creating a Center for Population Mental Health at
Columbia Mailman School. 

Jonathan Lavine and Jeannie Lavine donated $5 million to endow the Lavine Family Directorship of the Climate and Health Program. Their gift is a strong affirmation of the School’s long-standing dedication to studying, educating on, and ultimately mitigating the health effects of climate change. Read more about the program on page 18. 

Jack Rowe, MD, and Valerie Rowe, PhD, gave $5 million to address the School’s highest priorities. Their gift will allow the School much-needed flexibility to seize emerging opportunities, adapt to evolving needs, and invest in key strategic initiatives—including student scholarships; diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives; and strengthening ties with the local community. John W. "Jack" Rowe is the Julius B. Richmond Professor of Health Policy and Aging and a professor of Health Policy and Management at the School.

Alan Batkin and Jane Batkin donated $2.5 million to endow the Jane and Alan Batkin Professorship in Child Health and Well-Being, underscoring the School’s commitment to addressing the unique public health needs of children and adolescents and advancing the right of all young people to grow up in healthy, safe, thriving environments and communities.

To discuss the power of a leadership gift to Columbia Mailman School, contact Laura Sobel, associate dean of development, at