A Conversation with Beth Dolan, Interim Dean of the College of Health
In late December, Beth Dolan, formerly the deputy provost for graduate education at Lehigh, was named interim dean of the university’s innovative College of Health.
It’s a role for which she is uniquely suited, because Dolan, who first came to Lehigh in 2001, brings a non-traditional background in health to a college that is quite intentionally challenging its faculty and students to look at the world of health, and health problems, in new and different ways.
As an undergrad student at Davidson College, Dolan began her college career with the intention of becoming a doctor. She was majoring in pre-med, and at one point landed a clinical research internship in cardiology. She found the research and the work fascinating, but rather than pushing her toward med school, the experience instead opened her eyes to issues related to health that she hadn’t contemplated previously.
She became interested in topics like patient experience and perspective, as well as issues around suffering and illness. She changed majors, earned her B.A. in English, then continued to explore the intersection of health and literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she would earn both her master’s and doctorate in English. She would later serve as senior fellow in literature and medicine at the UNC School of Medicine.
During her time at Lehigh, Dolan has continued her work in health and health-related fields. She served as founding director of the Health, Medicine and Society Program; co-directed a committee that competed successfully for a cluster hire in community health; and served on the committee that designed the Grants for Experiential Learning in Health to fund student research and apprenticeship opportunities in the health arena. Most recently, as the university’s first Deputy Provost for Graduate Education, she worked to elevate graduate education and improve the graduate student experience at Lehigh.
Now as interim dean at the College of Health, Dolan is working to expand and further develop the curriculum, seek out both internal and external partnership opportunities, recruit new faculty, and promote the college—and its innovative approach to tackling health problems—to prospective students.
As you start to settle into your new role, I am curious what insights you’ve gained about the College of Health.
First of all, I’ve learned from the faculty that population health is a fascinating emerging field. The field of public health focuses on governmental interventions to protect the public’s health, and population health investigates the ways systems and structures at all levels and in all sectors influence health outcomes. This approach is full of potential for collaboration across the university and with external partners as well, and I’m really excited about that. The connectedness of this foundational field of the college (our first major is in Population Health) offers exciting opportunities for expanding the focus of the college. Additionally, as I have gotten to know the faculty, I’ve learned that they are both remarkable teachers and leading researchers. We now have seven faculty members with diverse expertise. Although they’re working in different fields, they’re all committed to this approach of improving the health of populations. And then the other thing that I’ve had a chance to discover since I’ve come on board is the students, who are just a delight.
Speaking of students, how are you and the faculty engaging with them during this time of COVID-19?
In addition to working with students in classes and in supervised research experience, the faculty, staff, and I are inviting the students to collaborate on designing and growing the College of Health. One example is the COH “student ambassador” group who are reaching out to our admitted students to answer their questions about this new college and life at Lehigh. Because they are in the first class of students in the College of Health, our ambassadors didn’t have the opportunity to speak with current students when they started last year; they’re just a brave group of 64 students who said, “Yeah, let me give this a try.” I have so much admiration for them. Every two weeks Professor Gomez and I host a “COH Student Roundtable,” an open door meeting to get to know the students and hear their ideas for the college. We’ve also established a COH Student Advisory Council, to ensure that when the faculty, staff, and administrators make decisions in the college we are truly informed by student perspectives.
Based on what we’ve already heard, for instance, we’re working to expand the curriculum. We’re planning additional majors, most notably a pre-health friendly version of population health. Also, I have to say, in getting to know the students, what has really amazed me about them is there’s not just “one version” of a College of Health student. This is true in all of our colleges, but you would think in terms of a college with one major currently you’d find a specific type of student. But we have students who are double majoring in behavioral neuroscience and population health, economics and population health, taking up minors in languages, business, biosciences, HMS, mass communication, and global studies. There are also about 30 students from other colleges who are completing our minors in population health and global population health. I think students see that our majors and minors compliment a wide range of programs that they’re taking in our other colleges.
That raises an interesting question: What kind of collaborative opportunities do you see with the other colleges at Lehigh?
One thing I noticed when I came on board was that there were so many opportunities for the College of Health to collaborate within the university. Now that the college has welcomed its first class, it’s the right time to take advantage of those opportunities to grow and deepen opportunities for students and faculty. One of my major goals is to explore those kinds of collaborative opportunities across the university both for faculty research and for educational programs. I envision the College of Health–if you’ll indulge a metaphor, as the heart of health research and education for the university–with strong veins and arteries stretching across the university body to equally important vital organs in the other colleges. I am currently in conversations with the other Deans about these opportunities.
To encourage cross-college collaboration I am in the process of appointing associate deans from our other colleges at Lehigh. The first associate dean that I appointed is Professor Anand Jagota, a colleague I admire very much. Coming to Lehigh from a career in industry, Professor Jagota started the interdisciplinary bioengineering department at Lehigh and served as chair for many years. He’s an insightful leader and he has a robust research agenda himself. And of course he works on matters related to health, specifically around materials. He is a huge asset in terms of helping us establish research collaborations between the College of Health faculty and other faculty on campus. He also has strong connections to health systems and industry, which is fantastic because the College of Health is interested in cultivating those external partnerships as well.
I’m also thrilled that Professor Erica Hoelscher will join us as associate dean of faculty and staff starting March 1. She’s an experienced and highly regarded department chair (Theater, College of Arts and Sciences) who shares the COH commitment to social justice and diversity. She has also served as university ombuds, a role that has given her a broad view of the challenges that faculty, students, and staff face. By all accounts, in both roles she exhibited acute listening and problem solving skills that will be important contribution to building a positive culture and community in the College of Health. She will guide the college as we develop our tenure and promotion guidelines and generally be a valuable resource for faculty and staff.
Looking toward the long term, where do you see this College headed?
If there’s one word that’s been my mantra where I want the college to go, it’s about connections—it’s about connecting and collaborating.
As I mentioned, I envision the College of Health at the nexus of the health footprint for Lehigh University as a whole, with robust collaborative connections to the other colleges. With one pillar in population health, I intend to work on developing a second pillar in personalized medicine, a structure imagined when I was on an early planning committee for the college. Personalized medicine uses genetic information or biomarkers to develop individualized care plans. Data will be the floor of this structure that connects and holds up the two pillars, with social, economic, behavioral, and biological determinants of health the walls, if you will.
In terms of student experience, a key priority for the college is to provide experiential learning opportunities. I’d love the college to get to the point where we can guarantee every COH student an experiential learning opportunity. We currently have a capstone course, which is directed by a single faculty member for every single student, and the student drives that capstone in terms of their research interests.
But before they get to that senior capstone project, I want to be able to offer students an array of other experiential opportunities. We’ve already started collaborating with and working really closely with the Office of International Affairs, for example, to establish and highlight existing international internships and study abroad programs.
While I served as director of the Health, Medicine & Society program, I joined a small group of faculty from across the university to co-design a program offering students grants for experiential learning and health (GELH). Students who have sophomore standing, can apply for up to $5,000 in the summer to conduct health-related research or undertake a clinical, field, or other experience related to health. They could be shadowing a doctor, they could do clinical research, they could do some kind of public health intervention at home or abroad. There have been a lot of really fascinating projects that have come through that program, and I hope to grow the funding for those experiences so that more students can participate.
A second priority is to embed career development into the College of Health curriculum and co-curricular opportunities. The Center for Career & Professional Development is collaborating with us and with their industry partners to identify internship opportunities in the health sector for our students. Their career coaches and pre-health experts are helping us include developmental opportunities in our classes. For example, we will encourage COH students to register for Lehigh Connects right away to begin building their networks. Along those lines, the Lehigh Alumni Health Care Alliance has generously offered to serve as alumni mentors for College of Health students, since we don’t have our own alumni yet.
In our current context, it’s hard to avoid asking about COVID. So as a new dean, I’m wondering what are the biggest challenges you are dealing with in terms of the pandemic.
For me, it’s not having that in-person contact with our students. I really have to say, it’s a bit disorienting. I have a roundtable with students today, actually, along with our Director of Undergraduate Studies, Professor Eduardo Gómez. We’re going to be doing this twice a month with students. And it’s great that we can connect with them. But it’s not the same as when you’re walking through campus and see a student and can ask, “Hey, how’s it going?” It’s like the people part is muted, and I’m a people person. I miss those casual interactions.
But I’ll say this: Our faculty has leaned in. They’re really, really great about working with students. When we invited students to be ambassadors to reach out to incoming or admitted students, one of the things we asked was, “What’s the most positive thing that’s happened to you in the College of Health since you started in the fall?” I created a word cloud of their answers, and the word “professor” was the biggest word in that word cloud, right in the center. And so it’s very clear that our professors are doing a great job, that they’re connecting individually with the students. I hope that helps the students get through this very difficult time.
In terms of faculty recruitment, as a new college, you could go so many different directions. So what is your plan for the next set of faculty hires?
We’ve chosen to focus this semester on three priority searches for faculty. First, we’re searching for another biostatistician. We’re also hiring a biostatistician/data scientist, and that person would be someone who would apply statistics to a specific field, for example, they could be a computational person who uses statistics to assess health issues. And our third hire this semester is a health services researcher. This is someone who investigates how a whole range of factors affect health outcomes, including social structures, healthcare systems, economics, government policies and so forth.
In the Fall, we will focus on searches for a community health specialist, a molecular epidemiologist and an environmental health scientist. In addition, we will search a cutting-edge researcher and educator to fill the Ellen and Vincent Forlenza ’75 Endowed Chair in Health, Innovation & Technology. To ramp up for that hire, we will host three or so lectures in health innovation and technology to invite the Lehigh community to explore the discipline with us. As we build a department and a major in health innovation and technology, we’ll work closely with the College of Engineering. So we want to get that conversation started in a community-building way.
When it comes to prospective students, what would your pitch to them be for why this college makes sense for them, as opposed to a more traditional college of public health?
Both public and population health look at populations described in multiple ways–zip code, ethnicity, risk factors, etc, and both examine the social, political, and behavioral determinants of health. The key differentiator between public health and population health is that the major actor involved in public health is the government, while population health considers environments and actors beyond the government, including the NGO, non-profit, and corporate sectors. Our particular brand of population health has a strong emphasis on data and health technology and innovation. The take-home message that I would want to share with students is that this degree will prepare you for many different sectors.
I do want to say this though—that it is the Lehigh College of Health. It’s not the College of Population Health. We started by establishing a BS in population health and that will be the foundation from which the educational programs grow. We’ve added minors in population health and global population health. We’re rolling out a master’s in public health in Fall 2022, and we plan to build other departments, majors, and graduate programs that are focused on disciplines including environmental health, health policy and politics, and community health. The college at its maturity point will be broader than population health.
Lehigh will be opening the Health, Science & Technology building soon. How important is that building for the college, and for Lehigh as a whole?
I think it’s a game changer for Lehigh, especially for faculty, staff, and students working in health research. There are two big reasons. First, there’s going to be state-of-the-art equipment in that building. And second, the way it’s designed captures this theme of collaboration. The point is to put people in each other’s way in a way so that there are these really “fortunate collisions” between researchers and students working in different fields. For example, our Institute for Indigenous Studies is going to be in the HST building, and that institute is not a high-tech endeavor. It’s focused on culture and people, and how health is influenced by community and culture. I love that it’s going to be in the mix. Social scientists, scientists, and engineers will share this beautiful research space. Who knows what ideas will emerge when a medical anthropologist and a geneticist stand in line for coffee together in the HST cafe?
What is the ceiling for this college? How much of an impact can it ultimately have?
That’s an excellent question. I mean, of course you can’t say the impacts are limitless because we’re not going to be reaching out to every human on Earth. But truly the scope is enormous in terms of impact simply because the focus is on health, which is something that matters to everyone, and we are trying to prepare our students to look at things from a social and population perspective, whether it’s through the lens of policy or the lens of some kind of tech device. I mean, think about this: You’ll have students sitting in the same classes, some of whom will be really interested in working on device creation, and others who are training in community health research and intervention. Both types of student will understand the social, biological, and behavioral determinants of health and be literate in biostatistics. That coming together of the technical and the social science side is really interesting in terms of students’ potential innovative impact. And finally, we’re going to have a global focus. So I would hope that there’s going to be an impact on the health of our local community, as well as other communities that our students touch with their work.