What's the Future of Public Health?

December 12, 2022

As Columbia Mailman School launches its second century of public health leadership, we asked faculty, students, graduates, and staff members to share the areas they believe most demand our attention and predict the field’s next successes.

What critical, emerging issue needs more attention ASAP? 

“We urgently need to incorporate climate and health into the training of all health professionals, so that they have the knowledge and skills to prevent and respond to climate and planetary crises. Through this, we will see gains in health for the current generation and see a world that can support health in generations to come.”

Cecilia Sorensen, MD, associate professor of Environmental Health Sciences and director of the Global Consortium on Climate and Health Education 

“An underrecognized area of public health that needs attention is the mental health impact COVID-19 has had on marginalized communities, in particular.”

Nia Augustine, MHA ’23 candidate in Health Policy and Management

“Sexually transmitted infections. There has been a nearly 30 percent increase over the past six years, and, notably, cases of congenital syphilis have almost quadrupled. The clinical impact is significant and the economic cost—estimated at over $16 billion—is staggering.”
Alwyn Cohall, MD, professor of Sociomedical Sciences and Population and Family Health, professor of Pediatrics at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, director of the Harlem Health Promotion Center, and director of Project STAY (Services To Assist Youth)

“Black maternal mortality. Black women are three times more likely to die during childbirth than non-Hispanic white women. This is part of the legacy of American slavery, which permeates all American institutions. Racism is in the air we breathe and the water we swim in. Solutions cannot be solely rooted in awareness or downshifting the blame. They need to be as robust and multifaceted as the problem.” 

Yveneed Francois, MPH ’22, Sociomedical Sciences

“Columbia Mailman School is uniquely suited to be a leader in reversing threats to reproductive rights in the United States, both by investing in Mailman initiatives and by collaborating across the medical center and Columbia University as a whole.”

Leslie Davidson, MD ’78, special lecturer in Epidemiology and former professor of Epidemiology and Pediatrics at Columbia University Irving Medical Center

“I think it is unquestionably labor rights and occupational health. If you look at who got hit hardest by COVID, especially in the scary early days of the pandemic, it was people working hazardous jobs in enclosed spaces. Occupational health was once a big part of public health, and I hope it returns to the center.”

Merlin Chowkwanyun, MPH, PhD, Donald H. Gemson Assistant Professor of Sociomedical Sciences

“Intergenerational trauma-informed care and practice needs more attention. A trauma-informed approach recognizes the traumas afflicted upon historically marginalized communities and how adverse childhood experiences affect health outcomes across the life span.”

Monét Bryant, MPH ’22, Population and Family Health

What public health success could we see by 2040?

“I think we could see an end to the HIV epidemic. The mRNA technology used to develop COVID-19 vaccines has increased optimism about the development of an approved HIV vaccine in the near future. But while researchers continue to make progress on that, we must remind ourselves of an important pandemic lesson: that vaccinations, and not vaccines, prevent serious disease. So let’s strategize now on how to address the access and hesitancy barriers that marginalized communities face.”

Michael A. Joseph, PhD, MPH, vice dean of education and associate professor of Epidemiology

“We may see wider access to over-the-counter, inexpensive, and accurate self-test kits—like pregnancy test kits—not only for COVID-19, but also for influenza and other respiratory pathogens. Right now, test kits are often expensive, and most of the results
do not get reported. Future test kits could be set up so that the results are easily sent to a public health agency through cellphones.”

Jessica Justman, MD, senior technical director of ICAP, and associate professor of Medicine in Epidemiology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center 

“Virtually eliminating cervical carcinoma is within reach by 2040. Human papillomavirus is responsible for almost all cervical carcinoma, a major cause of death in women in a number of low-middle income countries. The vaccine is safe, and providing it to
all adolescents would reduce these cancers by up to 90 percent.”

Stephen Morse, PhD, professor of Epidemiology and director of the Infectious Disease Epidemiology Certificate Program 

“By 2040, we hope to see significant strides made in universal healthcare and access disparities. A few years ago, this seemed out of reach, but in light of other public health challenges, this goal now seems attainable. States must continue creating options and developing ways to fund universal healthcare. If we truly commit to affordable coverage, we can see reductions in chronic diseases.” 

Sandra Bernal Garcia, associate dean for student affairs and dean of students 

“By 2040, I hope we see the end of the criminalization of addiction. The United States has the worst opioid overdose crisis in the world, and decades of criminalizing substance use have only exacerbated it. Substance use should be seen through the lens of harm reduction so we can provide folks with treatment, not a prison cell.”

Kyle MacDonald, MD, MPH ’19, Alumni Board president and senior associate, advisory, at KPMG U.S.

“The pandemic has transformed the workplace. A huge public health success I believe we will see is a world where people—particularly older workers and caregivers of any age—can remain challenged and fulfilled in their jobs but on their terms. This includes continuing to work in newly flexible ways as we age past what we now think of as retirement. We know this new way of working will benefit their healthy longevity, and we now know it is attainable.”

Caitlin M. Hawke, associate director of programming, and senior science and strategy officer at the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center


How do you imagine the School’s second century will be different from its first?

“Collaboration will flourish. Tackling the big challenges of the next century, such as climate change, will require the School to work more than ever before across disciplines such as the natural sciences, engineering, data science, and political science.”

Jamie Daw, PhD, assistant professor of Health Policy and Management

“Due to the pandemic, public health is now recognized as a branch of science that solves the world’s biggest problems. I think we will scale up our impact in the decades to come.”

Ying Kuen (Ken) Cheung, PhD, professor of Biostatistics and vice dean of Faculty Affairs

“In the next decade, the School will increasingly have to confront a perennial tension between technological paths to improving population health and sociopolitical ones. While we tend to (rightly) focus on the dystopian aspects of these innovations, I believe they can be harnessed for public health improvement. I am excited about the rate of innovation in information technology and about how many more tools people will have to work with.”

Merlin Chowkwanyun

“The School will continue to be a place that attracts a diverse and intelligent group of people who are destined to be leaders
of change in society. The institution will continue to figure out ways to support these students while prioritizing equity.”

Yveneed Francois

“The second century of public health will be unique in that, rather than lacking data about key drivers of health, we will be inundated with data. We need to invest in our data systems and infrastructure. This includes advanced computing, data storage systems, and the training of public health professionals to be able to translate massive data sets into useful and actionable information.”

Gary W. Miller, PhD, professor of Environmental Health Sciences and vice dean of Research Strategy and Innovation

“I believe there will be improved emphasis on service learning and the provision of even more opportunities to get involved in the community by participating in an array of service and research projects. There will also be increased opportunities for community-academic partnerships.”

Alwyn Cohall

“Our second century will see rapid growth and a deeper synergy between academia, industry, and public policy. Columbia Mailman School will inform and guide public discourse using cutting-edge research and evidence-based solutions rooted in equity as it plays a key role as a global center for public health.” 

Kyle MacDonald

New York City science and health reporter Caroline Hopkins is a 2019 graduate of Columbia Journalism School.