Metro

Harvard names new public health school dean

The Harvard University School of Public Health facilities in the Longwood Medical Area.
Mark Pothier/Globe Staff
The Harvard University School of Public Health facilities in the Longwood Medical Area.

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has chosen one of its own professors, Michelle A. Williams, to serve as dean starting in July.

An epidemiologist known for her work on maternal and child health around the world, Williams will be the first black person to lead a graduate school at Harvard and the first woman to take the helm of the public health school.

“I have been granted the reins of a very highly functioning school that has an impact on a global scale,” Williams said. “My aspiration is that we will continue to lead the nation and lead the world.”

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Announcing the appointment Friday, Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, said Williams was “impassioned about the power of public health to change people’s lives for the better.”

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“She is a skilled builder of bridges — between the theoretical and the practical, the domestic and the international, the different disciplines that drive the school’s academic endeavors, and the different communities that shape its identity and aspirations,” Faust said in a statement.

A former student of the school, Williams is chairwoman of its epidemiology department and faculty director of the Harvard Catalyst Population Health Research Program and the Health Disparities Research Program.

She has won awards for teaching and mentoring from Harvard, the University of Washington, the American Public Health Association, and the White House.

Her research focuses on identifying, treating, and preventing the sources of maternal and infant mortality. She has worked across disciplines and across borders, doing research in Africa, Asia, and South America as well as the United States.

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As a student at Harvard, doing research in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Williams said, “I learned to appreciate how we can think globally.” Such experiences traveling and studying overseas are “the most powerful way to get talented young people to see how they can operate and effect change on a global level. . . . They get bitten by the bug and realize that we’re all in this together, whether in Bangkok or Boston.”

Williams said she hopes to elevate understanding and appreciation of public health, a discipline she said “is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.” When public health measures are their most effective, preventing injury and illness, “the majesty of the work” often goes unnoticed and only in times of crisis does the spotlight fall.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Williams immigrated to New York with her family at age 7.

“Everything I do, I recognize the pivotally important decision my family made to come to the United States,” she said, crediting her education and her opportunity to “climb the social ladder” to that decision.

She graduated from Princeton University in 1984, and later earned advanced degrees from Tufts University and the Harvard School of Public Health. A postdoctoral research fellowship brought her to the University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine. She joined the faculty and served as a professor and researcher until 2011, when she was recruited back to Harvard.

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Williams replaces Julio Frenk, who left Harvard in August to become president of the University of Miami. David Hunter, dean for academic affairs, has been serving as interim dean.

Williams said her experiences as a black woman have shaped her career and will influence her approach at Harvard, through “intelligence, creativity, diversity of perspective, and a problem-solving approach.” She also hopes to be a beacon so that “other people who share my social and demographic history can recognize it’s possible for them . . . to be first in something.”

Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the singularity of Michelle Williams’s appointment. She is the first black person to lead a graduate school at Harvard.