The School and the City

Columbia Mailman School has had a long and productive relationship with the city it calls home. And over the years, students, faculty, and the community have all benefited.

November 29, 2021

Wearing backpack air monitors and carrying digital counters, 17 teenagers scattered throughout Harlem to chart street-level diesel fuel emissions and count diesel buses, diesel trucks, cars, and pedestrians. It was July 1996. The interns, all residents of heavily polluted Northern Manhattan, were dubbed the “Earth Crew.” And they had a personal stake in the goal of their mission: to curb diesel pollutants in the neighborhood. The study—spearheaded by the West Harlem nonprofit WE ACT for Environmental Justice, designed by the Columbia Mailman School’s Columbia Children’s Center for Environmental Health (CCCEH), and largely executed by the Earth Crew and Columbia Mailman School students—revealed particulate matter and elemental carbon concentrations far above the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard. Paired with research showing high rates of asthma in Harlem and evidence linking asthma with pollution, it corroborated what many in the neighborhood, including WE ACT’s co-founder and executive director Peggy Shepard, could see: New York City’s diesel buses were harming Harlem’s health.

Through partnerships with advocacy groups like WE ACT, government bodies like the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), and community members, the Columbia Mailman School has cultivated a symbiotic relationship with the vibrant city it calls home. Grounded in the goal of reducing health disparities, the School’s researchers and students work in a uniquely dynamic setting, with the city as their lab. The diverse population allows a look at myriad health challenges.

And the city benefits. The School’s experts have a direct line of sight into pressing public health problems and provide evidence-based paths to solve them. For the School and its neighbors, collaboration means close personal relationships, deep trust, and the understanding that neither could achieve its goals without the other. “By partnering with community groups who have loud voices, we can get momentum and the ability to initiate change that we would not have by ourselves in our labs,” says Julie Herbstman, MSc, PhD, associate professor of Environmental Health Sciences and CCCEH’s director. “In return, we give information back to community members and say, ‘We learned this because of your participation. Here’s how to make your community healthier and safer.’”

WE ACT and Columbia’s Earth Crew study, along with the “Dirty Diesel” campaign that WE ACT launched incorporating the findings, compelled city transit officials to update the bus fleet from diesel-powered to natural gas, low-sulphur, and then hybrid-electric vehicles. WE ACT’s Shepard joined Columbia Mailman School’s Board of Advisors in 2020, and the partnership continues. “The goal of our research is impact,” Herbstman says. “Especially in an environmental health sphere, you can’t do this work effectively without partnerships.”

the city as partner

The New York City DOHMH has also been a critical partner over the School’s hundred-year history. The School’s evidence-based research has guided city services and its skilled graduates have bolstered the health department’s workforce. The DOHMH, in turn, has given students and researchers opportunities to apply their work in a real-world setting with tangible impact. “The collaboration has benefited the health of generations of New Yorkers,” says former DOHMH commissioner Oxiris Barbot, MD, who served on the School’s Board of Advisors and is now an adjunct assistant professor of Population and Family Health. “The work of staying on the leading edge of public health is what makes this partnership so dynamic and fruitful.”

The DOHMH partnership dates back to the early 20th century, when the School—then the DeLamar Institute of Public Health—provided training to state and city public health officers. Over the years, thousands of alumni have gone on to serve the city; nearly half the School’s 2020 graduating class took jobs in New York City after graduation, and government service was second only to hospital administration as the most common field. It is a tradition that the commissioner of the New York City DOHMH serves on the School’s Board of Advisors, and nine commissioners, to date, have come out of the School.

From the outset, the School’s relationship with what is now the DOHMH was close (so close, in fact, that the two have shared a building on 168th Street since 1939, and the School’s first director, Haven Emerson, MS/MD (1899) was the former health commissioner). As the DOHMH’s programs expanded, so did students’ involvement. On the seventh floor of their shared building, students in the 1940s analyzed specimens in the department’s Tropical Disease Clinic and Diagnostic Laboratory. “A close relationship between the staff of this clinic and that of the School is of mutual benefit in research, teaching, and service,” reads a 1945 announcement from the School’s archives. The city’s children and families benefited from that relationship in 1972 when Barbara Barlow, MD, and Leslie Davidson, MD ’78, launched the “Children Can’t Fly” program with the health department; it persuaded the city to require window guards in the homes of children under 10 and reduced childhood deaths from window falls by 96%.

The School–city partnership took on new urgency during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, when researchers from the School teamed up with the Mayor’s Office of AIDS Policy Coordination and the DOHMH to identify the needs of New Yorkers affected by HIV. In 1994, the School launched the Community Health Advisory & Information Network (CHAIN) project. To date, it has generated over 200 reports based on some 12,000 interviews with 3,000 people living with HIV in New York City and the tri county region. Angela Aidala, PhD ’80, a research scientist in Sociomedical Sciences, leads the team and works with the DOHMH and community partners. “Our goal has been to conduct rigorous research to assess the overall system of care informed by the voices and lived experience of people living with HIV,” Aidala says. “CHAIN has been a major source of data for service planning, and it was collaborative from the beginning.”

CHAIN exposed significant housing and food insecurities. At one point, based on a presumption that food services were sufficient, the HIV Planning Council considered reducing funds for food assistance for persons with HIV. Advocates, including those from God’s Love We Deliver, which provides medically tailored meals, pushed back. CHAIN documented that, while many people with HIV received some food assistance, programs seldom addressed all needs or provided nutrition critical for people with chronic illness. The findings helped catalyze the Food Is Medicine Coalition, a group of registered dietitians and nutritionists, policy advocates, and food service organizations promoting access to medically tailored meals. Aidala notes: “We’re not just doing research that ends up on a shelf.”

The School’s researchers also played key roles in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Sandro Galea, DrPH ’03, published the first study in his extensive research on the mental health consequences of 9/11 just a year after the tragedy, while he was a doctoral student at Columbia Mailman School (he is now dean of the Boston University School of Public Health). The School’s researchers have gone on to track long-term health behaviors among those affected, including binge drinking in adults and alcohol and cigarette use among adolescents. Steven Stellman, MPH ’92, PhD, professor of Clinical Epidemiology at the School, also served as research director of the World Trade Center Health Registry and is currently a consultant to the registry, a cohort study of over 71,000 community residents, Lower Manhattan area workers, and rescue and recovery workers.

community input, mutual trust

Partnerships that promote public health are impossible without community participation, and the School has long fostered these relationships. Beginning in the 1970s, the Department of Population and Family Health ran two programs in Washington Heights attended primarily by immigrants from the Dominican Republic who were coping with cultural differences in their new home. Salud Familiar (called “Parent Family Life and Holistic Sexuality” in English), led by Aurea Martinez, senior staff associate, taught parents how to communicate with their teens and how to counteract myths on sexuality. Meanwhile, teenagers could attend Teatro HEY (Health Education for Youth), led by program director Yvonne Carretero. The acting program used peer mentoring to address sexually transmitted disease, mental health, racism, bullying, and other topics. Over two-plus decades, they touched the community they served. “I still walk through the neighborhood and people who were in those classes speak to me and share their memories,” says Ingrid Carretero, Yvonne’s daughter, who has worked in several departments at Columbia University for 30 years.

In the mid-1990s, community-based interviewers, themselves Harlem residents, shaped the influential Harlem Household Survey. Robert Fullilove, EdD, now associate dean for Community and Minority Affairs and professor of Sociomedical Sciences, and his then-wife Mindy Fullilove, MD ’78, now a professor of Urban Policy and Health at the New School, along with other researchers, conducted the survey to chart health conditions, behavioral risk factors, preventive health measures, and drug use among a diverse and representative sample of 695 Harlem residents.

Census maps at the time were known to undercount households in low-income communities where, for example, telephones weren’t a given. The study’s findings painted a more complete picture, in part because of the mutual trust stemming from the decision to use community-based interviewers. Rates of self-reported drug use were higher than in other surveys of the same neighborhood, reflecting the value of this trust. The survey achieved a 72 percent participation rate—high for this type of research—and underscored the need for the city to address sobering health disparities.

bidirectional education

While Columbia Mailman School–led research has supported decades of improvements in New York City public health, the city has provided rich opportunities for students. Each year, John Santelli, MD, MPH, professor of Population and Family Health, brings his class to visit George Washington High School’s school-based health center that was itself the result of a multi stakeholder partnership. The center is one of seven serving 23 public high schools in Harlem, Washington Heights/Inwood, and the Bronx that provides students with services including physicals, immunizations, stress management, pregnancy prevention, dental care, and psychiatric care. The program stems from the School’s collaboration with Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons Department of Pediatrics, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, the city’s Department of Education, and the DOHMH. “A school health center has to be a coalition effort,” Santelli says.

To validate the centers’ value—and secure continued city support—Santelli and colleagues published research in the Journal of Adolescent Health detailing how these centers bypassed students’ barriers to healthcare, such as transportation, finances, and lack of awareness, improving their well-being and educational opportunities. “When people look at the efficacy of school-based health centers, they cite our research and the Columbia-Presbyterian model,” he says.

The annual class visit to one of the centers complements Santelli’s classroom lessons. “We teach people about the importance of rigor and strong science, but we also teach them about the application of those ideas to the world. That is the essence of good public health education,” he says.

deep bonds, continued impact

After 100 years of partnership, Columbia Mailman School and its collaborators continue to tackle New York City’s most pressing health challenges, most recently COVID-19. Through ICAP, researchers ran Harlem- and Bronx-based sites for COVID-19 vaccine trials, and during the initial vaccine rollout, Fullilove and ICAP director Wafaa El-Sadr, MD, MPH ’91, MPA, fielded questions and dispelled myths about the vaccine through community events.

Beyond the pandemic, Sociomedical Sciences professor Diana Hernández, PhD, has been spearheading research in partnership with residents in the South Bronx community where she grew up, highlighting an urgent need for energy efficiency upgrades in low-income housing. The high cost of outdated utilities, her research has shown, can affect health needs like lighting, cooking, and heating. Meanwhile, Health Policy and Management professor Peter Muennig, MPH ’98, has been working with elected officials and community leaders on a plan to cover the Cross Bronx Expressway with green spaces as a means to control pollution.

And at the Harlem Health Promotion Center, which is directed by Alwyn Cohall, MD, professor of Sociomedical Sciences and Population and Family Health, the School collaborates with community organizations, Columbia University Irving Medical Center, the DOHMH, and the New York State Department of Health to reach residents in Harlem and citywide with innovative service, education, health promotion, and research programs. To Cohall, the Center’s longevity ensures value to both community members and researchers. For example, its service component, Project STAY (Services To Assist Youth) launched in 1990 to provide tailored care to young people living with or at risk for HIV. The program has helped thousands of youth access care, trained countless students from public health and other disciplines, and provided the framework for community participatory research studies. The center is deeply ingrained in the Northern Manhattan community and has partners throughout the city. As Cohall has seen firsthand, mutual trust takes decades to build. “Many times, health professionals get some money, go into a community, do a project, and then leave once funding runs out, and the community is left holding the bag,” he says. “Columbia Mailman School is really saying, ‘We’re going to be here for the long run. We see you not as subjects, but as partners. We got you.’”


Science and health reporter Caroline Hopkins is a 2019 graduate of Columbia Journalism School.