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Q&A: Interim Dean Dr. Gina Lovasi Discusses Her Public Health Career Path and What Excites Her About the Future

Dr. Lovasi in front of Dornsife's famed mural
The Dornsife School of Public Health "is not a place where apathy wins. This is a community where we challenge each other to live our values," says Interim Dean Gina Lovasi, PhD, MPH.

September 14, 2023

The first day of September marked the start of Gina S. Lovasi’s, PhD, MPH, role as Interim Dean at the Dornsife School of Public Health (DSPH). Lovasi brings with her a wealth of experience in conducting public health research, refining academic programming, mentoring, and leading a university research center.

Lovasi has been the Dornsife Associate Professor of Urban Health in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics since 2016. She served as Associate Dean for Education (March 2022 – August 2023) and co-directed the Drexel Urban Health Collaborative (September 2016 – February 2022).

"I've learned that I'm drawn to a challenge, and the challenges faced by public health in 2023 feed my excitement about having a leadership role at this time." - Gina Lovasi, PhD, MPH

Lovasi’s research draws on both large datasets and local systematic data collection to address urban health challenges around health disparities, cardiovascular disease, and geographic environments.

Her work on the health relevance of retail establishments, policies to improve air quality, and urban trees and greenspaces has been widely cited in policy documents in the United States and globally. For this work, she has been awarded more than $5.3 million in external funding as principal investigator or multiple principal investigator while at Drexel.

In addition to publishing more than 140 peer-reviewed articles, Lovasi is co-editor of the book Urban Public Health: A Research Toolkit for Practice and Impact (Oxford University Press, 2020) and co-director of the Global Alliance for Training in Health Equity Research (GATHER), a training grant funded by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.

Lovasi is also a frequent mentor and instructor of epidemiology and urban health methods to graduate students working toward their master’s in public health (MPH) and doctoral degrees.

Before coming to Drexel, Lovasi completed her MPH and PhD in epidemiology at the University of Washington. Upon graduating, she moved to New York City to begin the interdisciplinary Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholar program after which she joined the faculty at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in Epidemiology.

Lovasi sat down for a Q&A to talk more about her path in public health and her vision for the future.

Q: What drew you to a career in public health?

A: Public health has allowed me to blend scientific and quantitative thinking with a love of people. This was true when I started as a cardiovascular epidemiology trainee in 2001, and has continued as my interests broadened to consider a wider range of health conditions affected by our surroundings. Chronic diseases which make up the leading causes of morbidity and mortality have touched my own family, and I’m grateful for the research and clinical expertise related to pain management, autism, addiction, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and Alzheimer’s disease that has brought my family members comfort, quality of life, or precious extra time. I feel public health research and education allow me to pay that forward, as well as looking to further close gaps in knowledge to guide action outside of health care settings.

There remains much we need to know, or need to take action on more effectively, if we are to protect health in all families, especially those who bear an excess burden of preventable disease.

Q: What excites you about the field of public health in 2023?

A: I’ve learned about myself that I’m drawn to a challenge, and the challenges faced by public health in 2023 feed my excitement about having a leadership role at this time. Even as chronic and infectious diseases, injury, substance use, and mental health crises continue to threaten populations, public health is increasingly tackling existential threats to health and society.

Because of our founding on health as a human right and the work that is already underway, our school is well poised for scientific discovery and thought leadership related to these existential threats, including:

  • Violence and trauma
  • Addiction and despair
  • Hunger and deprivation
  • Stigma and discrimination 
  • Mass incarceration and criminal justice involvement 
  • Global spread of viruses, bacteria, and other infectious agents 
  • Toxic environmental exposures in what we breathe, drink, and eat 
  • Climate change impacts including extreme heat, storms and flooding

The field of public health faces a moment in which we can transcend limits to our professional scope that went along with a narrower biomedical model. We have in public health traditions of looking upstream, focusing on what is modifiable, and applying a systematic and data-driven approach to decision making. With these traditions as a foundation, the field of public health and the students we are now training will be up for the challenges we now face. I am excited by this potential for contributions that matter for the populations we aspire to serve, and look to the future with curiosity to see what new ideas, innovation, and impact will grow from the challenges we now face.

Q: What research projects are engaging you at the moment?

A: Currently, I’m working on an NIA-funded project “Communities Designed to Support Cardiovascular Health for Older Adults” which brings together an interdisciplinary team, longitudinal geographic data, perceptions of neighborhood change, and health-related follow-up of middle aged and older adults. We will be investigating under what conditions an increase in healthy food stores, walkable streets, or medical care providers is most likely to yield cardiovascular health benefits.

Drs. Ezeh and Lovasi with three GATHER trainees
Drs. Ezeh and Lovasi with the '22 cohort of GATHER trainees

We are getting input from advisory committee members who advance policy, planning, and design initiatives. We are on the lookout for whether any health benefits are equally shared across geographic regions and racial identity groups. For some, changes that seem health promoting may not reach their full health-promoting potential due to concerns about the pace or intention behind the change, or about stressors such as housing cost escalation which themselves threaten health.

Other collaborative projects I am engaged in across the U.S. share the aspiration to inform place-based change, but focus on other health outcomes such as alcohol-related pedestrian deaths and cognitive aging. And I have been learning from and contributing to global health equity research networks as a co-investigator with Salud Urbana en América Latina (SALURBAL), a large project on urban health in Latin America, and through co-leading GATHER, a training grant that supports doctoral and postdoctoral students for mentored research training in the U.S., Mexico, Brazil, and Kenya.

Q: Can you share why you feel Drexel Dornsife is unique and what has kept you here?

A: My early excitement about joining Drexel Dornsife School of Public Health came from meeting people who dedicated their time, creativity, expertise, and humanity to work with real-world impact. The scale of this work varies tremendously, from one instructor trying out a new course activity with student interest and inclusion in mind, to a team doing the work across years to build trust with community partners, to a network convening multinational experts that can marshal needed resources, attention, and evidence to guide policy change.

There are times when disagreements arise about how best to go forward with our collective work, but that is sparked by caring deeply about what we are working towards. This is not a place where apathy wins. This is a community where we challenge each other to live our values. I have stayed because of the students, faculty, and professional staff who inspire me to keep going, and because of all the work we still have ahead of us. I am here because I have more to learn and more to contribute, and this is an environment that sets me up to do so joyfully. This Benjamin Franklin quote that has inspired me since childhood, and from where I sit here in Nesbitt Hall, it seems within reach: “What you would seem to be, be really.” 

Learn more about Dr. Lovasi