University of Washington School of Public Health

UW SPH News: Ask Dean Hilary Godwin

Ask Dean Hilary Godwin


Hilary Godwin photo

We invited students to pose questions to Hilary Godwin, who joined the SPH as our new dean in July. Here is a sampling of their queries, and Dean Godwin’s answers.

What drew you to public health?

I came to public health kind of late in life. I was a faculty member at Northwestern, working on the toxicology of lead. I realized that understanding why lead is toxic wouldn’t actually prevent anyone from getting poisoned, so I started working with the Chicago Department of Public Health and local community-based organizations on prevention. That’s when I realized public health was my passion.

How does your background in biophysics and chemistry give you a different perspective?

Having a bit of an outsider’s point of view has certainly given me an advantage in explaining the value of public health to others. It’s so important to explain what we do, why it’s important, and how public health differs from medicine.

What changes do you plan to make to SPH programs?

I didn’t come here with the idea of making radical changes. We have an incredibly strong school with wonderful research and education programs across the core disciplines of public health. My goal is to make sure people have the tools they need to thrive and to do the things they are passionate about.

One thing we will be doing in early 2019 is launching new strategic planning – where different stakeholders across the School can work collaboratively to come up with a cohesive narrative of our vision for the next five years and the role we see ourselves playing in promoting health and the evidence base for public health.

A strategic plan is important to make sure we communicate our strengths and priorities to the people we work with and serve. Because of limited resources, we can’t do everything. It’s important we come together to make good decisions on where we want to invest, what areas we want to further strengthen, and where we can make the most impact.

Do you have a plan for diversity and inclusion in all departments at SPH?

Diversity and inclusion are central to everything we do within public health. We care deeply about the social determinants of health and health equity.

I’m happy we’ve taken some concrete steps to create a culture that’s more inclusive and that promotes diversity. We’ve hired a chief diversity officer, are recruiting a director for a new center to study racism and health, and are committed to ultimately creating an Institute for Health Equity. We will continue to have conversations across the School about what we can do to create a more inclusive culture.

What strategies do you hope to implement to better unify the School of Public Health? And how do you envision strengthening ties across the UW?

It’s important to employ best practices from public health in the way we run our own organization and interact with each other. That includes having good conversations across disciplines and deep stakeholder engagement, which I think will help break down silos and create a better sense of unity and collaboration. It will also help us ensure that people here are happy and have the support they need to be successful.

By the same token, I would love to see us leverage those approaches to get more involved in the Population Health Initiative and other collaborations cross the UW and in the region to address really important problems that affect the health and well-being of our surrounding community.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

From a scientific perspective, I’m proud to have made a significant impact on our understanding of why lead is poisonous and a more nuanced understanding of why some nanomaterials are toxic and others are not. I’m particularly proud of introducing toxicology concepts to the lexicon of so many young scientists – particularly chemists – who have then gone on to use their skills to design new materials that were safer and better for people and the environment, as opposed to just focusing on which materials have better mechanical or electrical properties.

In terms of professional impact, I’m most proud of the students I’ve trained. I’ve been privileged to mentor a broad range of students who care deeply about so many important environmental health and public health problems. When I pivoted from chemistry to public health, I shifted from thinking of students as “apprentices” to how I could facilitate their passions and help them achieve their goals. That was a profound change in my role as a mentor.

By far the most rewarding things I’ve done have been around interdisciplinary partnerships. I love learning new things and I try to go into new areas without being too fearful of “not being an expert.” Instead, I try to consider things from the perspective of: “Given my background and knowledge and skills, what can I bring to the table and what can I learn by partnering with other people?”

Are interdisciplinary skills still important in an increasingly technical world?

Absolutely. One of our big strengths is a popular undergraduate major (“public health–global health”). It was developed by our faculty to provide students with the interdisciplinary skills they need for an increasingly global and technical world. Also, faculty across the School are working to re-envision our MPH curriculum to ensure that our signature degree provides the same kind of cohort experience and prepares students with the skills they need to be successful.

Digital dementia is a recent health issue. As college students, we look at screens for hours at a time to study, do homework or look at a projector during lectures. The trade-off of getting good grades is our cognitive health. How would you address this problem?

We don’t want you staring at a screen either! We want you engaging in rich conversations and activities in the classroom.

One thing that has made our undergraduate public health program so incredibly successful is that when the faculty designed it, they took in to consideration how we teach public health in addition to what we want to teach. They introduced a lot of active learning and problem-based learning components.

Now the faculty are working on the MPH curriculum. As we re-envision the content we want to cover and the skills we want to impart, we are also discussing the ways that we teach. We are also explicitly discussing how we can provide faculty the professional development opportunities and resources they need to feel comfortable and be effective in using active-learning approaches.

What do you do for fun?

I love the outdoors and that certainly was a big draw in coming to Seattle. I grew up in a family of field biologists so my idea of a relaxing weekend is going out in nature or cooking. I love reading.

I took up karate when my son was 12 and we spar together. I’m not very good at it. It’s humbling. But it’s very empowering to not be afraid of being hurt!

This story was featured in the fall 2018 issue of SPH Connect. Read the full publication here.