5 Questions with Sujal Symposium keynote speaker, UCLA Vice Provost Timothy Brewer

Health inequity is too big a problem for individual disciplines – let alone individuals – to tackle alone. Meaningful progress requires teams of providers, policy makers, researchers, engineers, and more, bringing their diverse expertise together to address complex problems with political, economic, and socio-cultural causes. That’s why the 2018 Sujal M. Parikh Symposium for Health and Social Justice will focus on interdisciplinary collaborations to improve health/healthcare at home and abroad.

In addition to a poster session as well as panels and presentations featuring some interdisciplinary health projects at U-M, the event will feature a keynote from UCLA’s Timothy Brewer, MD, MPH, Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary and Cross-Cultural Affairs. Global REACH caught up with Dr. Brewer for a Q & A in advance of his visit for the Sujal Symposium. Read about how he and his UCLA colleagues are approaching interdisciplinary cooperation, how his background in global health shaped his approach, and how he got to know Sujal Parikh, a former UMMS student and the conference’s namesake.

You actually knew and worked with Sujal. Can you provide a little more insight about that and what it means to you to be able to participate in this event?

I am deeply honored to speak at the Sujal M. Parikh Symposium for Health and Social Justice. I met Sujal when we both served on a joint Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada Resource Group on Global Health/Global Health Education Consortium Committee to develop global health core competencies for North American medical students. I was at McGill at the time, and Sujal was a University of Michigan medical student. Over the course of several meetings and phone calls, I came to know Sujal as a talented, intelligent, and articulate advocate for global health education and social justice. His passion and commitment were infectious, and his contributions well-reasoned and on-point. I had no doubt he was destined for an outstanding global health career, and was deeply saddened to learn of his untimely death in 2010. It is wonderful that the University of Michigan keeps Sujal’s memory alive through this symposium series. His brief but high-impact legacy remains an inspiration for me and others working in global health.

This year’s Sujal Symposium theme is about cross/multi-disciplinary collaboration. As a physician and a public health researcher, where do you see the greatest opportunity for cross-disciplinary collaboration when it comes to addressing health disparities?

Two opportunities to hear Dr. Bewer speak:

Internal Medicine Grand Rounds - Sept. 28, 2018 at noon in Ford Auditoriuam. Dr. Brewer will present a talk: Global health in an Interconnected World - Pandemics and their Lessons
Sujal M. Parikh Symposium for Health and Social Justice - Sept. 29, 2018 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at BSRB. Dr. Brewer's keynote will take place in the morning.

As the World Health Organization Constitution notes, “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Truly addressing health disparities therefore means that we will need to tackle poverty, discrimination, environmental degradation and social injustice, among other problems. Seeking solutions for these challenges requires health professionals to work not only with each other, but with government officials, communities, lawyers, economists, sociologists, engineers, artists, as well as experts from additional fields. Cross-disciplinary collaboration will be crucial for eliminating health disparities. The greatest opportunity is therefore in nurturing partnerships with diverse expertise and backgrounds.

As the first person to hold your current position, Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary & Cross Campus Affairs, what attracted you to this new role and what have you learned in the six years since taking the post?

I was attracted to the opportunity to learn about new fields while working with others to solve a wider range of societal challenges. For example, shortly after arriving at UCLA I attended an ethnomusicology symposium. Thirty years of working in medical schools did not provide me with any exposure to ethnomusicology. Among the lessons learned are that, although many faculty and students are excited to work in interdisciplinary spaces, universities are not necessarily well-designed to facilitate these activities. The architect Louis Sullivan once said that form should follow function. While many exciting interdisciplinary programs exist at UCLA and elsewhere, few university systems are structured in ways to maximize our collective ability to undertake interdisciplinary research or educational programs.

Given that, what are some of the innovative ways UCLA is fostering collaboration across disciplines? What has been the impact?

We take a multi-faceted approach to fostering interdisciplinary collaboration. One approach is bringing together faculty who possibly share common interests. For example, several years ago we brought faculty interested in global health together from across the Campus to brainstorm about potential programs. In addition to arranging an all-day workshop where faculty shared their ideas with each other, my office also sponsored several nationally recognized outside global health experts to participate. The result was the establishment of a global health minor that quickly became one of the more popular minors on Campus. Another approach is examining how explicit and implicit incentives motivate behaviors, and how the University might act to alter incentives to change behaviors. Getting schools, divisions and departments to count interdisciplinary activities towards tenure would be an example of this latter approach.

You have extensive experience doing public health research in sub-Saharan Africa. What have you learned about cross-disciplinary collaboration from working in the global setting?

In both cases, it is essential to start by listening and learning from local experts. A key element for success is building trust and mutual respect, and to not be frustrated when progress is uneven or slower than seems necessary. In both situations, it is helpful to plan a range of activities that allow for one or two short-term accomplishments to build credibility, while simultaneously laying the groundwork for longer-term collaborations. The most enduring and impactful programs tend to be those that represent true partnerships among all involved.