Meet our new dean

October 25, 2018 | Jeff Hodson
Photo of Dean Hilary Godwin by Elizar Mercado

Hilary Godwin joins UW School of Public Health as dean, with a faculty appointment as DEOHS professor

Photo: Elizar Mercado

We recently invited students to pose questions to Hilary Godwin, who joined the UW School of Public Health (SPH) as our new dean in July. Godwin is also professor in the UW Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences.

[Read the full version of this story, originally published in the fall 2018 issue of  SPH Connect.]

What drew you to public health?

I came to public health kind of late in life. I was a faculty member at Northwestern, working on the toxicology of lead. I realized that understanding why lead is toxic wouldn’t actually prevent anyone from getting poisoned, so I started working with the Chicago Department of Public Health and local community-based organizations on prevention. That’s when I realized public health was my passion.

How does your background in biophysics and chemistry give you a different perspective?

Having a bit of an outsider’s point of view has certainly given me an advantage in explaining the value of public health to others. It’s so important to explain what we do, why it’s important and how public health differs from medicine.

Do you have a plan for diversity and inclusion in all departments at SPH?

Diversity and inclusion are central to everything we do within public health. We care deeply about the social determinants of health and health equity. I’m happy we’ve taken some concrete steps to create a culture that’s more inclusive and that promotes diversity. We’ve hired a chief diversity officer, are recruiting a director for a new center to study racism and health and are committed to ultimately creating an Institute for Health Equity. We will continue to have conversations across the School about what we can do to create a more inclusive culture.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

From a scientific perspective, I’m proud to have made a significant impact on our understanding of why lead is poisonous and a more nuanced understanding of why some nanomaterials are toxic and others are not. I’m particularly proud of introducing toxicology concepts to the lexicon of so many young scientists–particularly chemists–who have then gone on to use their skills to design new materials that were safer and better for people and the environment, as opposed to just focusing on which materials have better mechanical or electrical properties. 

In terms of professional impact, I’m most proud of the students I’ve trained. I’ve been privileged to mentor a broad range of students who care deeply about so many important environmental health and public health problems. When I pivoted from chemistry to public health, I shifted from thinking of students as “apprentices” to how I could facilitate their passions and help them achieve their goals. That was a profound change in my role as a mentor.

By far the most rewarding things I’ve done have been around interdisciplinary partnerships. I love learning new things and I try to go into new areas without being too fearful of “not being an expert.” Instead, I try to consider things from the perspective of: “Given my background and knowledge and skills, what can I bring to the table and what can I learn by partnering with other people?”

Are interdisciplinary skills still important in an increasingly technical world?

Absolutely. One of our big strengths is a popular undergraduate major (“public health–global health”). It was developed by our faculty to provide students with the interdisciplinary skills they need for an increasingly global and technical world. Also, faculty across the school are working to re-envision our MPH curriculum to ensure that our signature degree provides the same kind of cohort experience and prepares students with the skills they need to be successful.

What do you do for fun?

I love the outdoors and that certainly was a big draw in coming to Seattle. I grew up in a family of field biologists so my idea of a relaxing weekend is going out in nature or cooking. I love reading. I took up karate when my son was 12 and we spar together. I’m not very good at it. It’s humbling. But it’s very empowering to not be afraid of being hurt!