Dr. Ashish Jha in his office at Brown’s School of Public Health

A belated welcome back to Brown, Ashish. You returned last June after more than a year as the White House COVID coordinator. Please tell us a bit about that experience in Washington.

It was a huge privilege to serve in the administration and bring what I know as a public health professional to the table with policymakers. Being engaged in the process enabled me to contribute my expertise to make better, more health-oriented decisions while especially considering the health of communities and individuals. It was an extraordinary experience.

During the height of the pandemic, you were deliberately accessible to the media, including the “COVID: What Comes Next” podcast that you recorded with me while I was a staff writer at The Providence Journal covering the pandemic. Why was it important for you to play a role in the public square?

Public is the first word in public health. Having strong health data along with accessible and proven successful public health interventions, like vaccines, means nothing if not communicated effectively and clearly to the public, reaching people where they are. Breaking through misinformation and ensuring that we communicate data-driven messages has been a priority.

That’s a role you continue to play on many issues. Correct?

Absolutely, and for that exact reason. Our country is incredibly diverse and reaching out and engaging with people with very different perspectives is essential to moving policy forward. COVID-19 taught us the importance of communication through crises and using science and evidence to keep people safe.

Speaking of COVID, while the nation and world are not close to the crisis situation of the early months of the pandemic, the virus has not gone away. Will it always be with us?

We need to treat COVID like other respiratory viruses such as the flu & RSV. Even though COVID is in a much, much better place than where it was during the early days of the pandemic, we are still looking at many deaths each autumn and winter unless we continue to prevent a large portion of those deaths through vaccines and treatments.

Knowing this, what is your guidance for people today?

Look – because the virus continues to evolve, we need to continue to stay vigilant against it.  Like the flu & RSV, it is important for those most at risk, like older Americans and those with chronic illnesses,  to stay up-to-date on their vaccines and get a shot every year. And if you do get COVID, if you are in a high risk group, to get treatments.

You said during a January 2021 taping of “COVID: What Comes Next” that the next pandemic is not a question of if but when. Is that still your assessment? What can the nation and world do better to prepare?

An interconnected world and the effects of climate change are only two factors in increased risk for another pandemic-type threat. It is important that we build on the lessons learned from COVID-19 to improve surveillance and early detection mechanisms for health threats and mitigate the impact of potential future pandemics. We must also strengthen the relationship between public health and health care to ensure that data can be integrated and that the health care workforce can be bolstered during a crisis. Global engagement is also a key part of future pandemic preparedness. We have seen with COVID-19 variants that international partnerships are vital to increased detection and a robust response. Better surveillance systems should be a priority to monitor for health threats.

On the Brown SPH website, we find “Our Mission: To improve the health of all populations, especially those most vulnerable, by producing world-class public health scholarship, forging strong community partnerships and educating the next generation of diverse public health leaders.” And also “Our Vision: To champion health and health equity around the world.” Can you expand a bit please?

We are implementing this mission in several ways. First, we have increased the number of Professors of the Practice – Faculty whose qualifications are earned primarily through professional experience rather than scholarly credentials. This has enabled us to offer courses focused on putting public health into practice. Second, we work with a variety of community partners to provide opportunities for our students and faculty to engage in critical work to improve health outcomes throughout the state and beyond. And third – a program I am most proud of – is Health Equity Scholars – a leadership development opportunity for Master of Public Health students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Serving Institutions, and people with a long term commitment to Rhode Island. These individuals are part of an agenda to bring new voices and perspectives into public health – perspectives that will indeed drive more equity in our society.

OK, let’s get into some of the work Brown’s School of Public Health is doing currently. One is “Public Health Crisis in the Middle East,” a series of conversations about that crisis. Tell us about the issue and the program.

As a School of Public Health, our core mission is to educate and bring evidence and science to the public health challenges facing the world. This month, we will be hosting a series of conversations on the public health crisis in Gaza, bringing together speakers from inside and outside the school to build an understanding of the health implications of conflict and how health systems can be effectively and rapidly rebuilt in post-conflict zones. We aim to shed light on the consequences of conflict, violence and destruction in Gaza as a community committed to improving the health and well-being of all populations and one which seeks to educate on these issues.

The list of the school’s research areas is extensive. Can you please tell us about a few, starting with:

Climate change and health?

At Brown, we recognize the issue of climate change as a health issue, with our research and teaching focused on the effects of climate change on vulnerable communities. We have been working to build up our presence in this space with faculty expertise– conducting research in areas like air, water and noise pollution, lead poisoning and emerging infectious disease threats amid a changing climate. Eight faculty members from Brown are part of a new $6 million National Science Foundation grant which will establish a coastal resilience research hub aimed at addressing climate change related challenges faced by communities in New England. Last spring, we had a seminar series exploring how extreme weather events impact our health, the risk climate change presents to future pandemics and the need to build climate-resilient health systems. In the next year, we hope to establish a more formal approach to grow this important work.

What about PFAS and environmental health?

Faculty at our Center for Children’s Environmental Health examine the health effects of environmental chemicals on children’s growth and development, as well as extreme temperatures on preterm births. Working with interdisciplinary teams in the U.S. and Canada, our researchers have managed the enrollment cohort studies of women during and before pregnancy, enabling them to collect data on the impact of chemical exposures, including PFAS, on infant health. Focusing on mitigating exposure and strategies to reduce the impact of exposure to these chemicals are two main priorities for this center.

Health disparities and health equity?

The Center for Health Promotion and Health Equity works in an interdisciplinary manner to improve health in underserved populations and address avoidable and preventable inequalities. Faculty members are engaged in research in areas such as improving healthy food consumption, addressing the housing crisis and examining the burden of drug overdoses. The People, Place & Health Collective (PPHC) is a lab that focuses on people-centered, place-oriented, and data-driven health research, interventions, and solutions for communities, aiming to affect policy change by conducting rigorous research with accessible communication. We also teach courses on issues of healthcare quality and equity and the social determinants of health.`

And LGBTQ+ health?

Our researchers have been engaged in examining issues of LGBTQ+ health on a population level, working to minimize disparities and promote health equity. This includes interventions to decrease the risk for HIV and other STIs, transmission of infectious diseases and the impact of stigma on the health of sexual and gender minority populations.


In the year and a half since its establishment, Brown’s Pandemic Center is dedicated to preventing the next pandemic and increasing resilience to future health threats. The center is made up of global change-makers and leaders who are dedicated to translating evidence into effective policy and practice. The recent opening of the center’s office in Washington, DC will enable our students and faculty to connect with global public health leaders and policymakers, and train the next generation of decision-makers for future public health crises.

What is the school’s Incubator Lab?

The Dean’s Research Incubator Lab is a hub that encourages both internal Brown SPH partnerships and strategic external engagements. The focus areas are pandemics, climate change and health, reducing mis- and disinformation, global health and health systems, health data science, and equity, racism and health. Through the Incubator Lab, we’ve initiated a number of projects and initiatives which have continued to grow and develop – including the Information Futures Lab and the Pandemic Center.

Will the school have a role in The Rhode Island Life Science Hub, which is chaired by Neil D. Steinberg?

We’ve been talking to Neil about this very important new initiative that he is leading and exploring ways in which SPH can engage and contribute to the critical mission of the Hub. We will have more on this as we develop this partnership further.

And lastly, education of course is at the heart of Brown SPH – education at the undergraduate and graduate levels. What are your goals here?

We’re really focused on training the next generation of public health leaders. Providing a diverse body of students with the skills to conduct research and implement policy change advances our vision of championing health equity globally. Our goals are to generate world-class public health scholarship, cultivate strong partnerships with communities and governmental entities, ensure that the school’s infrastructure supports operational effectiveness, and ultimately ensure that our work contributes to improving the health of all populations, especially those who are most vulnerable.