Welcoming a New Dean

Q & A with Incoming Dean Melinda Pettigrew

On January 3, 2024, the School of Public Health (SPH) will welcome Melinda Pettigrew as its 8th dean. Professor Pettigrew’s research focuses on antibiotic resistance at the Yale School of Public Health, where she currently serves as deputy dean.

Advances: Why did you want to be dean of the U of M School of Public Health? 
Pettigrew: When I served as interim dean at the Yale School of Public Health, I got first-hand knowledge of the impact that I could have in this position and I started thinking how I’d like to be a dean. That said, I didn’t want to be a dean just to be a dean. It had to be the right place, the right time, and the right fit. All the stars aligned when I saw the Minnesota announcement. 

I wanted to work in a place that aligned with my values and where high-quality research has an effect on major public health problems. I also wanted to be part of a community where education and practice are important and where people are committed to the work. I really saw that in the SPH position profile. 

I was really excited about the University of Minnesota. The School of Public Health is a great school within the context of a strong university with a lot of resources that, frankly, aren’t as available at other places. For example, I do One Health research — antibiotic resistance — so it’s exciting to have six health sciences schools in one place. And public health is so interdisciplinary, so collaborative, and there are all these programs at the U, such as the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, that we can work with to really tackle the major public health issues that are coming our way.

I’m also really interested in SPAR [the SPH Strategic Plan for Antiracism] and specifically excited to see the word “antiracism” in its name, because many places don’t tackle the issue that directly. The most important thing to me is that there’s a statement in SPAR that says “everyone in the SPH community is responsible for the change we seek.” DEI efforts can’t be successful if only a subset of faculty, staff, and students of color are doing the work. DEI efforts will fail if there’s not leadership saying this is important to me, and I really do believe everyone has to participate.

The school is a research powerhouse and there are so many amazing centers — CARHE [Center for Antiracism Research for Health Equity], CHAI [Center for Healthy Aging and Innovation], RHRC [Rural Health Research Center], for example — and so many interesting public health challenges that can be addressed because of the strong research already here.  

My parents were both teachers and I’m an educator at heart. I love teaching and it’s one of my favorite things I’ve done in my 20 years at Yale. At the UMN School of Public Health, there’s a strong emphasis on academic programs and I’m really excited about the undergrad major and the potential for having an impact with that program when it comes to addressing shortages in the public health workforce. Also, with the Public Health Institute [PHI], there’s the opportunity for public health practitioners to gain additional skills and for newcomers to the field to try out things and take specific courses. I try to spend time on curriculum innovations and it looks like the ground work is already there. 

And of course, the Minnesota Department of Health has a great reputation and is highly regarded, so that partnership is another thing that’s exciting. 

I could go on and on. Plus, Minnesota is geographically in the right place for me. I’m originally from Chicago and have been wanting to get back to the Midwest and be in a city. Coming to a school that’s in an urban setting is important to me. 

Advances: What do you think is a leader’s most important quality?
Pettigrew: Integrity. A leader’s words and actions have to be consistent and when they say they’re going to do something, they have to do it. Integrity is the basis for trust, and if people don’t trust a leader, they are not going to be motivated, they’re not going to be committed, they’re not going to work with that person. As a leader, people need to trust that my decisions are informed by data, that I have the school’s mission and values in mind, and that I’m doing what’s best for the school with the interest of the community at heart, not for my personal gain. 

Advances: What thoughts do you have about your first year as dean?
Pettigrew: I hope to finalize my first-year goals in collaboration with members of the UMN-SPH community, but here are some of the things I am thinking about:

Leadership is a social and collaborative process and I want to get to know the school and larger communities, understand their priorities, and learn what they think is working and where the opportunities are so I can help position them for success. 

I want SPAR to be integrated into all the work that we do. I’d like to see the school lead the way in creating systemic change both within the school and the University and become a leader in advancing social justice, antiracism, and health equity.

I want to understand if the school’s policies and procedures support its mission and values. For example, when we say community-based participatory research is important, are the tenure and promotion systems set up to recognize, evaluate, and reward that work?

I believe the school should be the top-trusted source for public health information, evidence, policy, and actions for the University, the state, and the region and an exemplar for how public health should operate on a national and global scale. It is perfectly positioned to have that kind of major impact and, to help it get there, I need to understand the school and the people.

One of the priorities that was mentioned to me when I was interviewing was that the community wants to bridge silos and increase connectedness. So, I’ll be exploring what we can work on to make that happen. 

Advances: As a researcher, what public health challenges are you trying to solve?
Pettigrew: Antibiotic resistance (AR) is my passion and it is a major global health threat. Globally in 2019 alone, 4.5 – 5 million deaths were associated with AR, and 1.3 million were directly attributable to AR. We are no longer able to treat some common infections with safe, effective, and affordable drugs. We can’t “solve” AR, because it’s an inevitable evolutionary process. It’s a public health challenge that really needs to be managed or mitigated. 

Antibiotics aren’t like other drugs. Their use is at the intersection of the individual and public health. If I take an antibiotic and the bacteria are resistant, there’s the possibility of the infection spreading in the community because either the bacteria themselves are transmitted or the genes that encode resistance in the bacteria are transmitted. I like complex challenging problems that require interdisciplinary perspectives – basic science, policy questions, national security, global health. Tackling AR needs systems thinking. 

Advances: If you had a completely free day to yourself, what would you do?
Pettigrew: I love short road trips, especially if the weather’s nice. My perfect day would be to find a small town that I haven’t visited within a two-hour drive. I’d hop in the car, blast some music — I love Nina Simone — drive to a town with, hopefully, a great bookstore and a great kitchen store. Ideally, I’d check out the bookstore, check out the kitchen store, and go have a late lunch with some really good food. I like to people watch and try to imagine what their lives are like. Then I’d  take a walk or a hike, hop back in the car and head home.

Advances: What did you love doing when you were a kid that you still love doing today? 
Pettigrew: Two things. One is cooking. It’s my big stress release. I started cooking when I was pretty young. My mom made this great German chocolate cake for my dad every year on his birthday, so it started with that, trying out different recipes as a teenager. I became a vegetarian and nobody else was a vegetarian, so I started cooking my own food. You can tell how stressed I am by how complicated the meals are! When I was in grad school, my thesis defense was coming up, so I had to learn how to make Ethiopian food — grind the spices, make injera, etc. Cooking brings me a lot of joy. The other thing is fireflies. When I was growing up in Chicago, my brothers and I would catch fireflies in jars. This summer has been great for fireflies and I’ve really enjoyed catching them in my hand, not in jars anymore!

Advances: What would you like to know about your SPH colleagues?
Pettigrew: I’d like to know what they like to cook and I’d also want to know what they like to read. You can get some great insights into people by what they read and what they enjoy.

Advances: In Minnesota, we love to talk about the weather. You’re coming to SPH in January, so what are you looking forward to for your first Minnesota winter?
Pettigrew: The #1 question I get asked when I say I’m moving to Minneapolis is “Aren’t you worried about the cold?” I’m excited about it, I’m curious. I have a friend in Minneapolis who also grew up in Chicago and he says if you’re in Chicago you just endure winter, just get through it, and hope for spring and summer to come. In Minnesota, he says, people really embrace the winter. I’m looking forward to snowshoeing and I’m interested in trying cross-country skiing.

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