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A life in public health takes an alumnus around the world and back to Brooklyn

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2009 - Spring


Research, teaching and other projects have exposed Michael A. Joseph, M.P.H. ’96, Ph.D., to Zimbabwean health crises, the Bedford-Stuyvesant–Crown Heights AIDS epidemic and tuberculosis (TB) affliction in South African provinces. No matter where he has traveled, however, he has always returned to SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, where his interest in public health began.

Joseph’s wide-ranging path wasn’t what he’d imagined growing up in Brooklyn. Although he had planned to become a doctor, the premed courses at Brooklyn College turned him away from medicine. He switched his major to health science and secured an internship at Downstate. Assisting the late Rachel G. Fruchter, M.P.H., Ph.D., then-associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology, in researching gynecological cancers among minority and immigrant women, he said, “allowed me as an undergraduate to see a research project from inception to completion.” It also connected him to the institution that would become his professional touchstone.

“By my second epi course, I fell in love with the hands-on detective work linking an exposure to a health outcome,” recalled Joseph, who was encouraged by professors to pursue an M.P.H. At the School of Public Health he served as a teaching assistant during his second year, where his love affair with teaching began and spurred him toward a Ph.D. Joseph’s master’s thesis was based on his analysis of Fruchter’s data.

For his doctoral work, he went to the University of Michigan and assisted in the teaching of master’s-level biostatistics and epidemiology courses. There, he said, “I was trained by the best of the best in epidemiology: Siobán Harlow, Sherman James and David Schottenfeld.” He continued exploring a theme from his Downstate internship—minority health—for his dissertation, “Risk Factors for Lower Urinary Tract Symptoms in African-American Men.”

Strong family ties lured Joseph back to Brooklyn after he had completed his doctorate and was looking for a faculty position. When he heard about Downstate’s new public health graduate program emphasizing urban and immigrant health—a marriage of the themes that have guided his career—it seemed like a natural fit. “At a well-established public health school, I’d have less input, less room for innovation and growth,” he reasoned. “This was an opportunity to serve as a role model for a diverse student population.” Joseph’s lectures explore factors “prohibiting minority and underserved populations from engaging in healthy behaviors—including economic inequality, lack of employment opportunity, poverty and our failing health care system.”

Dedicated to both teaching and minority health, Joseph was invited on three occasions to teach an intensive biostatistics and epidemiology course to public health students at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare. “Africa is plagued by many infectious diseases, so students are in the field tackling outbreaks. What I teach here over 14 weeks, I had to teach there in two, from 9 to 5 daily. It was exhausting but quite fulfilling,” he said. Through Downstate’s HIV Center for Women and Children, he was invited in 2008 to train HIV and TB researchers at South Africa’s University of the Free State in Bloemfontein. “They had a wealth of data but needed assistance carrying out the next steps—conducting appropriate analysis or writing a manuscript for publication.”

An assistant professor of epidemiology, Joseph is the junior principal investigator on a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in which Downstate faculty collaborate with the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health to target sexual behaviors that put heterosexual African-American men at risk for HIV infection. In 2006, Joseph and his wife-to-be, Lauretta Ansah, used funding from the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS to support a ministry to educate the members of Bedford Central Presbyterian Church about the disease. “For years, the black church was silent about the AIDS epidemic because of stigma. Many in the black community still believe it’s largely a homosexual disease,” said Joseph.

Joseph always reaches out to peers. At Michigan, he mentored several students, including members of the Public Health Students of African Descent, a student-run group that was established over 21 years ago. He tutored master’s-level students struggling with epidemiology or biostatistics. He also co-founded the Black Young Professionals’ Public Health Network, also known as ‘The NETWORK.’ The NETWORK presents such programs for black attendees at American Public Health Association conferences as “Is Hip Hop Healthy for African American Females?” Poster sessions showcase research in health disparities by minority public health students and young professionals.

To Pascal J. Imperato, M.D., M.P.H., dean and Distinguished Service Professor of Downstate’s Graduate Program in Public Health, “Michael is extremely skilled in teaching epidemiological concepts [so that students are] engaged and encouraged to reach beyond their own perceived limits. His introductory epidemiology course is one of the most popular in the graduate program.” Joseph’s students consistently give him top ratings as teacher, mentor and role model.

After interviewing at Downstate in 2004, Joseph remembers thinking, “They loved me, I loved them, it’s a great fit.” For his work there, he was inducted into Delta Omega, the public health honorary society. Michael Joseph knows he’s in the right place.

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