People Person: Cynthia Minkovitz

A Q&A with the new chair of Population, Family and Reproductive Health

Interview by Brian W. Simpson • Photo by Chris Hartlove

Cynthia Schaffer Minkovitz’s priorities start with people: mothers and children who have a hard time getting preventive care, partners in her research, students and postdocs. Minkovitz, MD, MPP, the new William H. Gates Sr. Professor in Population, Family and Reproductive Health, now has another top priority: her fellow faculty. “What makes this such an incredibly special place is the people with whom we have the opportunity to work, and the people whose lives we have the opportunity to influence,” says Minkovitz, who began her tenure as Population, Family and Reproductive Health chair on January 1.

In this Q&A, the expert in pediatric preventive care shares her plans for the department as well as her thoughts on child health, mentoring and advocacy.

Where would you like the department to be in 10 years?

Ten years from now our department—as well as the others at the School—might change our slogan to “Saving Lives—Billions at a Time,” but we’ll continue to be at the cutting edge of scientific discovery and its translation in whatever directions our research and practice activities take us. I see us continuing to engage with our partners in the community, both locally and globally, and really identifying preventive strategies to promote population health. With regard to teaching, I look forward to providing enhanced learning opportunities and resources for students to ensure they are prepared to innovate and meet the challenges they will encounter in their careers.

During your postdoc at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, you studied access to social services by low-income pregnant women here in Baltimore—first through large datasets and then through personal interviews. What was that like?

Research is always a humbling process, but it was great to hear the stories of women about what it was like to actually receive or not receive services. Though many were eligible, sometimes they weren’t able to benefit from those services because they didn’t know about them or no one had given them the pathway forward for how to access them.

Did the personal interviews bring the data to life for you?

Hearing firsthand from people about their experiences compels me to want to then address issues that will affect many people and populations. While we might know on paper that something is supposed to work or be available, it’s really not until you talk to individuals who are the intended service recipients that you really have a good understanding about what works and what needs improving.

How do perceptions about child health in the U.S. compare with the reality?

I think the general perception is that the overwhelming majority of children are identified by their parents as being healthy, which is true. And yet, one out of five children has special health care needs, and a similar percentage of children have two or more adverse childhood experiences—being exposed to things such as substance use in families, neighborhood violence, extreme financial hardship and other phenomena that have lifelong sequelae.

“The overwhelming majority of children are identified by their parents as being healthy, which is true. And yet, one out of five children has special health care needs, and a similar percentage of children have two or more adverse childhood experiences.”

What’s the answer for kids who have these adverse childhood experiences?

I think domestically as a society we have become much better at identification. Where I believe we fall short is in putting the steps in place for prevention to truly support families so that every child has the opportunity to achieve optimal health and development over time.

You’re known for mentoring researchers early in their careers. Why is that important to you?

Throughout my education—which is still ongoing—I’ve been the beneficiary of incredible mentoring by senior colleagues in the field. They helped me identify future directions and decide the best path forward. I feel that my opportunity is to, in turn, provide mentoring for the next generation of learners.

What characteristics make a person successful early in her career?

I think the key ingredient to success early on is, you need to be passionate about the areas that you want to pursue in scientific discovery. The road is long, and the wins are modest early on. So it has to be someone who is passionate, driven to succeed, driven to want to have the tools in their toolkit that will enable them to answer important questions using the best science.

Tell us about the new Center for Public Health Advocacy in your department.

One of the opportunities for the new interdepartmental Center is to bring science to advocacy and advocacy to science to improve health and well-being for all persons. The things we read about in the news every day suggest that more is needed to effectively translate science for policymakers and practitioners as well as the general public. So the goals of the new Center are to conduct research on advocacy methods and think about how we translate public health research into action, teaching and training the public health workforce.

Some faculty are hesitant about engaging in advocacy. How do you draw the line between gathering the evidence versus being an advocate for those findings?

I think that’s an important issue. As scientists, we always need to maintain our objectivity. It’s also part of our obligation to translate the work that we do for broader use. Some faculty and students choose to, for example, testify in front of legislative bodies. That’s not a space that everyone feels comfortable in, but for those who do, I think that’s an incredible contribution.

What’s the one difference you really want to make in the department?

There are many areas, so I don’t think I can limit it to one. Over time, I’d like to enhance the diversity of our department as well as contribute to those efforts at the School and University level. I want to continue to have our footprint around population and life course issues and increasingly be seen as the go-to place for related issues among students and faculty. And I want to continue to build upon the sense of community and collaboration that we already have—and with our stakeholders—to advance the work that we’re all so passionate about doing.