Michelle Spencer, MS

Ready, Set, Innovate

The Bloomberg American Health Initiative’s Michelle Spencer updates us on new fellows and big plans.

By Brian W. Simpson • Photo by Chris Hartlove

Launched last fall, the Bloomberg American Health Initiative has a staff, a group of committed faculty, a strategy, and a new crop of MPH fellows—all primed to take on five important health issues in the U.S. Soon after the Initiative launched, director Joshua Sharfstein, MD, tapped Michelle Spencer, MS, as associate director. Spencer brings deep experience in public health at the state and local levels, and a passion for innovation. In this Q&A, she gives an update on the initiative that targets five areas affecting American health: addiction and overdose, environmental challenges, obesity and the food system, risks to adolescent health, and violence.

How have you and the faculty been defining the key areas?

We have about 250 faculty who are involved in our work groups across the five focus areas. It continues to grow. It’s an opportunity for us to really think outside the box, to do things a little bit differently. It’s thinking about what new research proposals and projects we could be working on. In January we launched the Spark Award, which will support innovative research in any of those five areas. We’re hoping to make between two and four awards sometime in May. The total dollars available are $150,000 in this first year. As Josh would say, it’s planting a few seeds and watching a thousand flowers bloom. And each work group leader has a small budget to really think through projects that they can be working on within the specific focus areas and that involve community organizations. 

Tell us about the Initiatives’ first group of MPH fellows.

We had 63 applicants for this first go-round. We were excited to be able to identify eight candidates who we believe are really stellar and will represent this fellowship well in this first cohort. The students had to be admitted into the MPH program to be considered for the Bloomberg fellowship. It was important to be able to see what they were doing and the contributions they were making to their specific organizations. The collaborating organizations played a huge role in our decision as well. Their current employees will be able to come back and use some research practice and tools from the MPH degree to really move the needle in the specific areas. When we’re fully implemented, we expect to have 50 MPH students and 10 DRPH students each year. 

And you have symposia planned? 

Between November of this year and March of next year, we’ll have five symposia (each within those focus areas) that are meant to be small and intimate in size—about 100 individuals, maximum—to really help us look at what the data says within these five areas to help us think through some of the next tangible steps. 

Who is going to be in the room then? It’s not just our faculty? 

It’s not just our faculty. It would be invited experts, policymakers, individuals from collaborating organizations who are on the front lines. 

Next year you have a big summit planned? 

The larger summit would be in the fall of 2018. We envision having upward of 500 to 700 people. It will be a great opportunity for us to talk about what we’ve done over the last year, the evidence that helped to guide us, the work plans that have come out of these smaller symposia and what impact we hope to have. 

Why did you take this job?

I’ve worked in government for the last 15 or so years, and the responsibilities there really cut across all of these five areas. This initiative seemed to pull it all together in a different way—helping to identify and train new individuals who are going to be doing this work and then thinking about what research projects we can support. It was also an opportunity to help create something that’s nontraditional in a traditional setting such as academia. It’s been a great ride so far. 

What do you personally hope to achieve with the Initiative? 

It’s always important that you’re working on something that matters and matters beyond yourself. I hope we are able to really think about this initiative as focused on changing lives in very tangible and meaningful ways. 

The Initiative is confronting huge, nationwide, intractable problems. Will it really make a difference? 

Yes, I think it will. The five areas were chosen based on some of the most critical issues that are happening across our country. The Initiative seeks to tackle those really hard public health issues in a way that’s not kind of pie in the sky, but very much tangible and going down to the grass roots and community levels to identify what we can do and what’s working and what’s not working. That’s why we will have community members who are involved. That’s why we will have stakeholders in organizations who are actually doing the work. That’s why we’ll have the policy levers that we need to pull on, the experts who are clear about what these issues are and what needs to be done. 

Out of the five key areas, do you have a favorite?

Absolutely not. (Laughs.) They’re all equal.