Scientist. Leader. Mentor. Dr. Melinda Irwin, brings years of academic experience and a robust set of skills into her new role as the Yale School of Public Health’s first Associate Dean for Research. She is a tenured professor of chronic disease epidemiology, associate director of population sciences at the Yale Cancer Center, co-leader of the Cancer Prevention and Control Research Program and deputy director of public health at the Yale Center for Clinical Investigation.
Dr. Irwin’s research into lifestyle factors and chronic disease focuses on the use of randomized trials to assess the impact obesity, weight loss, exercise and diet have on various cancer outcomes and the quality of life of cancer patients and survivors. Her published reports have received both national and international attention.
As associate dean for research, Dr. Irwin says she will work to advance and elevate the school’s research mission by prioritizing areas of scientific investment, enhancing collaborations both at Yale and externally, and providing faculty the resources they need to succeed.
“While I will continue my own research studies, I am also now at a point in my career where I want to facilitate and support the research careers of others,” she said. “I am excited to expand mentoring opportunities for faculty.”
Dr. Irwin spoke at length about her new role in a recent interview with the YSPH Office of Communications.
What are your foremost priorities as the new Associate Dean for Research?
MI: My immediate priority is to strengthen the school’s research infrastructure. Faculty should be able to spend more time focusing on science and less time on administrative issues. Last year, I chaired the YSPH Research Advisory Committee that developed a list of recommendations based on faculty feedback. My goal is to implement as many of those recommendations as possible in the year ahead. My second priority is to facilitate collaborations across Yale and through multi-investigator grant submissions, with a goal being more impactful research that changes practice and policy and improves public health. A third priority involves working with the offices of development and communications to increase the external visibility and dissemination of YSPH research.
What do you see as the Yale School of Public Health’s current research strengths and what do you envision needs to be done to enhance the school’s research efforts?
MI: YSPH has exceptional faculty conducting high impact public health research. Yale also has other top-rated schools of medicine, nursing, law, and management, as well as NIH-funded research centers where many YSPH faculty collaborate with other Yale faculty on translational research. With our highly ranked schools and centers, we have an opportunity to be a thought leader for stakeholders interested in the overlap with law, medicine, policy and management. We also have incredible opportunities to partner more with the New Haven community and other local institutions to make a huge public health impact locally, with evidence-based strategies disseminated across the state, country and globally. I envision YSPH being a world leader in public health research that shapes practice and policy and improves the health of the public.
Supporting faculty and providing researchers with the resources they need to succeed is as an important aspect of the ADR’s role. What strategies do you have in mind to carry out this part of your mission?
MI: There is a need to make existing resources known, available, and accessible and also to expand or make new resources available to faculty. I will create an inventory of currently available shared resources and post links and information on the YSPH website. Some needed resources that don’t exist will be created, such as a YSPH committee that offers peer-review of grant applications.
The University Research Council, led by the vice provost for research Dr. Peter Schiffer and comprised of associate deans for research, meets monthly to discuss shared resources and research initiatives, and foster communications and collaborations across Yale. I will advocate for YSPH at these meetings and share information with YSPH faculty so that we can strategically move research initiatives forward.
Please explain how the ADR will facilitate greater collaboration and cross-disciplinary initiatives?
MI: As I mentioned, Yale has top-rated professional schools and NIH-funded research centers. I plan to leverage my leadership roles within the Yale Cancer Center and the Yale Center for Clinical Investigation to connect YSPH faculty with faculty across campus, and to have YSPH lead and co-sponsor Yale-wide events, as well as events with other schools of public health and external partners. I also would like to create more inter-departmental working groups related to our areas of research excellence. I would like to assist these groups with multi-investigator grant applications, including R25s and T32s, by establishing a repository of documents for grants and linking these working groups to internal pilot funding to collect preliminary data for larger grants.
Also, while many YSPH faculty collaborate with various local communities, there are opportunities for greater engagement. Developing a New Haven public health study would enhance collaborations with community organizations. I look forward to working with the YSPH Office of Public Health Practice on moving initiatives forward that enhance alignment around common goals and priorities focused on targeted outreach to the community.
You have had a distinguished career as an educator, mentor, leader and researcher. What led you to pursue a career in public health? What led to your focus on cancer research and physical health? And lastly, what drives you to do all that you do? It certainly is a full plate!
MI: When I was young, I wanted to go into orthopedics or sports medicine, primarily because of my involvement in competitive sports. Much of the sports medicine research being conducted in the early 1990s was focused on improving sports performance. But I was interested in how being physically active could prevent disease and promote health. My mother died of breast cancer when I was 18 years old, and there was very limited research focused on modifiable lifestyle behaviors and cancer prevention. I was very fortunate to have incredible mentors during my PhD and postdoc fellowship, who provided me with opportunities to expand my knowledge and skills in accurately assessing lifestyle behaviors, epidemiology and clinical trials in cancer prevention and control. I came to Yale in 2001 with a passion to conduct trials of exercise, diet and weight management in preventing and controlling cancer. I have been very fortunate to be continuously funded since 2003, with my research findings impacting clinical care. While I will continue my own research studies, I am also now at a point in my career where I want to facilitate and support the research careers of others through mentoring; provide oversight and attention toward improving the management of our research enterprise; and coordinate the strategic direction of YSPH research.
Is there anything else you would like to say relative to your time at YSPH and/or your appointment?
MI: I know the importance of excellent research mentoring and have fostered the research careers of over 60 Yale students and 20 junior faculty, and I am currently PI on an NCI R25 grant to train over 100 basic, clinical and population early career investigators from around the country in obesity and cancer research. In my role as Associate Dean for Research, I am excited to expand mentoring opportunities for faculty.
Author: Mr. Colin Poitras