The Stony Brook University Global Health Institute has appointed Dr. Peter M. Small as its founding director, beginning this month. Before joining the university, Small was the deputy director of the tuberculosis delivery program for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The institute, which was established in 2013, is a research center that works toward creating innovative programs for global health. It would not just focus strictly on health, but also take into consideration the determinants of health, which includes the economy, ecology and poverty.
The institute will be working closely with the Centre ValBio, Stony Brook’s Madagascar-based research center that works to promote and conserve biologically diverse ecosystems.
Patricia Wright is the founder and executive director of the Centre ValBio and a distinguished service professor at the university. Small’s vision for the institute is exactly what Wright wanted as he thinks of policy, economy and biology all at the same time, Wright said.
“I think Dr. Small was an excellent choice,” she said. “He has a broad perspective that will allow a new kind of science to occur.”
Small started off his work at the institute with a visit to Centre ValBio in Madagascar this past summer, where he has already had meetings with the mayor of Ranomafana, medical student health teams and the dean of the University of Fianarantsoa Medical School. Small and Wright were also joined by James and Robin Herrnstein, whose nongovernmental organization, PIVOT, will play a crucial role in the institute’s work.
Both Wright and Small describe the relationships among the three different institutes as a “three-legged stool.” While PIVOT will be providing health care services, the institute will be working on health care research and Centre ValBio will focus on the health of the environment, biodiversity and wildlife.
The first project the institute, Centre ValBio and PIVOT are working on together is called “OneHealth.” Through this project, they plan to improve the human health by integrating what is going on in villages, forests, and other areas with the natural history of animals. Wright explained that while finding cures for diseases is important, it is also important to take a holistic approach and find preventive methods for the diseases.
Small said Stony Brook University and Centre ValBio provide the right atmosphere for research on global health by going beyond the traditional confinements of health to look more broadly at the other determinants of health.
“The big question that I’m facing,” Small said, “is what is the role of an American institution in improving the lives of the poor people in a country like Madagascar.”
Wright said the three major illnesses found in the Madagascar villages are malaria, diarrheal diseases and tuberculosis.
Over the last three decades, Small has been greatly involved in the research for tuberculosis, for which he has worked both nationally and internationally.
When asked what piqued his interest in this field, he laughed and said, “I could pretend that I saw a need for good science, but the reality is that I was compelled to work for a very strong mentor and it was the power of mentorship that got me into this career.”
He said having had to devise strategies for problems for over 13 years at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the biggest thing he brings to Stony Brook is the ability to think strategically and bring together multidisciplinary teams to address issues. He believes that students in universities are the “critical glue” which holds the interdisciplinary activities together.
While Small thinks Stony Brook is the right place for conducting research, he also believes that Madagascar holds the perfect overlap of three forces — ecological devastation, poverty and diseases — making the main focus region for the OneHealth initiative.
Global health, Small said, is attracting high levels of attention from international funding organizations, such as the World Bank. Not only that, students are greatly attracted to fieldwork that allows them to improve the lives of the poor and create better living environments.
“I think that for me is one of the center goals of the GHI on the Stony Brook campus,” Small said, “to help students figure out how to translate their passion for global health into professions in global health.”
In the future, the institute plans to design courses and seminars for students to educate themselves in the field of global health. Semesters at Centre ValBio in Madagascar may also be available for students to understand and work with diseases that are rarely even heard of in this side of the world.
“I suspect that they are going to develop a program eventually for medical students to focus more on infectious diseases,” Wright said.
Small said that he is mostly looking forward to interacting with students to learn more about what interests them in the field of global health, particularly so that the institute can help the students achieve their goals while also learning from the students.
“Students provide a critical energy,” he said. “Many times they have a better idea of what they want to do than the faculty themselves.”