At first glance, Paul D. Cleary, Ph.D., might seem an unorthodox choice to be dean of public health. The one-time rock and blues pianist started out as a medical sociologist, but a look at his research projects and publications shows that he’s spent his career exploring behaviors that affect health and how people interact with the systems that provide health care. His work has sought better ways to find out how patients view their care; he has also studied what determines variations in the quality of care. He’s traveled the world to study HIV/AIDS, smoking, alcohol abuse and mental illness.

“The things I have focused on are health behavior, analytic methods, research that people refer to as social epidemiology, statistical modeling, health policy and behavioral science,” Cleary, a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, said in an interview in March, about two weeks after Yale President Richard C. Levin and School of Medicine Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D., announced his appointment as dean of public health and chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health.

Cleary, who enjoys bicycling, skiing and flying his private plane, began his work at Yale in July. He succeeds Michael H. Merson, M.D., the Anna M.R. Lauder Professor of Public Health, who stepped down as dean in 2005 after 10 years on the job. Brian P. Leaderer, M.P.H. ’71, Ph.D. ’75, served as interim dean for 18 months.

“My philosophy of organization,” Cleary said, “is that I should make it easier for the faculty to do their job better.”

Cleary also believes in programmatic research. “Let’s say you have two people, three people, four people who want to focus on cancer research. They may reinforce each other. You may be able to get more support for certain programs. You may be more likely to have an impact. Young assistant professors who want to work in that area will have mentors,” Cleary said. “I feel very strongly about developing research programmatically, fostering multidisciplinary collaborations and developing excellence in focused areas.”

Those areas of inquiry, he stressed, would be determined by the faculty. And his programmatic view would not preclude individual scholarship by faculty members, he said. “You rely on their vision and innovation to do things,” he said.

Cleary’s academic path, also a bit unorthodox, began with his graduation from the University of Wisconsin in 1970 with an undergraduate degree in physics, a field that still fascinates him. Advanced studies in physics seemed too abstract at a time when the real world of social ferment inspired by the Vietnam War and civil rights movement was beckoning. After taking time off from school to play in blues and rock bands, he chose to study medical sociology, also at Wisconsin.

In 1982 he joined the faculty at Harvard, where, at the time of his appointment at Yale, he was professor of health care policy in the departments of health care policy and social medicine at Harvard Medical School.

“I know that many of you, as I do, look forward to working with him in the years ahead,” Levin told a gathering of public health faculty in the Winslow Auditorium. “You will find that he can be a sympathetic listener, someone who can pay attention to people and at the same time be capable of independent thinking and leadership.”

Alpern, Ensign Professor of Medicine, said he shares Cleary’s vision of programmatic research and multidisciplinary collaborations.

Cleary and his wife, Cynthia Barnett, J.D. ’82, a corporate and environmental lawyer in Boston, have two children, Janet, 19, and Barnett, 14.