Scholars and friends gathered at the Yale School of Public Health on Wednesday to celebrate the appointment of Jeffrey Townsend to the newly endowed Elihu Professorship in Biostatistics.
An endowed chair is the highest honor for scholarship and achievement at Yale, said Paul Cleary, former dean and the Anna M.R. Lauder Professor of Public Health, in his welcoming remarks. More practically, it changes the way one can work, in the best possible way, allowing for more creativity and flexibility in scientific inquiry.
“Townsend’s appointment was a coup for public health,” Cleary told the gathering in Winslow Auditorium.
An evolutionary biologist, Townsend, Ph.D., is known for his application of phylogenetic research to modern public health problems. Dismayed by the devastation to children losing their parents during the 2014 Ebola crisis, his team applied these methods to the outbreak, and successfully inferred the underreporting of the disease from viral genetic data—providing key information for West Africa’s response to the epidemic.
Townsend’s work on cancer demonstrates the relationships between mutation rates and the genetic architecture of cancer cells that can allow clinicians to predict the trajectory of disease and treatment scenarios across a range of cancers. Not only can this better guide pharmacological targets but it can inform clinical trial designs.
“Evolutionary biology is usually considered an historical science,” said Townsend. Used with genetic sequencing data, however, it can offer tremendous insight into small differences and provide predictions of how cancer will evolve in patients.
Prior to joining the faculty of the Yale School of Public Health in 2013, Townsend was an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale College. He is director of bioinformatics at the Yale Center for Analytical Sciences at YSPH and a member of the Yale Cancer Center. In 2017, he won the Translational Research Prize from the Yale Cancer Society. He has also garnered honors from the American Society of Naturalists, the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution and the Council of Graduate Schools.
Townsend was joined by three other speakers whose common theme was evolution in thought and scientific inquiry. Michael Shermer, Ph.D., publisher of Skeptic magazine and a columnist for Scientific American, discussed his forthcoming book, Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia and evolving views on mortality. Massimo Pigliucci, Ph.D., Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York, discussed stoicism as a philosophy of well-being in modern life, just as it was for the ancient Greeks and Romans. Vincent DeVita, Jr., M.D., the Amy and Joseph Perella Professor of Medicine and Professor of Epidemiology at Yale, recounted pivotal moments from the United States’ war on cancer, his early research at the National Cancer Institute and progress under his subsequent leadership until he left the agency in 1988. DeVita, a pioneer in oncology, is known for development of combination chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s lymphoma that improved the cure rate from 0 percent to over 70 percent.
The Elihu Professorship in Biostatistics was funded by Notsew Nova Inc. and Charles Burnett III, who also contributed to the Burnett and Stender Families Professor of Public Health chair, established last year and awarded to Alison Galvani, Ph.D., a professor in the School’s Department of Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases.