Getting to know the director of Canada’s first Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) program + personal reflections running the program, with Theodore (Ted) Witek Jr.

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In this episode, Sujani sits down with Ted Witek Jr., the director of the new DrPH program at Dalla Lana School of Public Health. They discuss Ted’s diverse career journey, his research work, and Canada’s first DrPH program.

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • Ted’s career journey from researching respiratory diseases to becoming the director of the DrPH at Dalla Lana
  • Ted’s research interests and achievements
  • How making connections and building relationships is important in furthering your career
  • The value of seizing opportunities and keeping an open mind
  • How Ted is still challenging himself to continue learning
  • What Ted has learned in his position as the first director of the first DrPH program in Canada
  • A brief summary about the DrPH program at Dalla Lana
  • What backgrounds students of the DrPH come from and the kind of work they are currently working on
  • What’s next for the DrPH program

Today’s Guest:

Dr. Witek served Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals for nearly 25 years where he held various pharmacology and clinical research positions, including Director of Respiratory and Immunology Clinical Research leading to his roles as President and CEO of Boehringer Ingelheim’s Canadian and Portuguese operations. He led the Global Operating Team for Spiriva serving as Co-Chair of the Global Alliance with Pfizer.

Dr. Witek also was Chief Scientific Officer & Senior Vice President, Corporate Partnerships, at Innoviva (Formerly Theravance, Inc.). He also served on the Board of Directors of Canada’s Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies (Rx&D) including Chair of the Health Technology Assessment and Public Relations Committee. He was appointed to the Ontario Health Innovation Council and advisor to the Design for Health Program at OCAD University. He is currently  an Adjunct Professor & Senior Fellow at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Health & Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy. He serves as Director of the DrPH program. Dr. Witek is the author of more than 100 scientific papers as well as several chapters and books.

Dr. Witek holds a Doctor of Public Health from Columbia University and a Master of Public Health from Yale University and an MBA from Henley Management College in the UK.

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Episode Transcript

Ted 0:00
If you have the chance to experience other systems and other countries, highly, highly encouraged, it does give you a bit of a swagger, a cosmopolitan look on life. And that’s important no matter what area you’re going to focus, whether it’s physiology medicine policy, you need a broad lens.

Sujani 0:21
Hey there, this is Sujani. And I know you can’t wait to get into today’s episode. So I will make this very quick right now and tell you more about it at the end. Up until now, you’ve been hearing about our career program at the end of our episodes. While those career programs were super successful, our community members found a ton of value through them, we decided to put a stop on it. Because after running a few of those cohorts, and having a lot of discussions with our peers in public health, the participants of the program, schools of public health, as well as other changemakers in the field, we’re excited to let you know that we’ve taken the career program and have expanded it into a much more exciting offer. That doesn’t just last a few weeks. So if you’re listening to this episode, when it’s going live, I’m super excited to let you know that next month in October of 2022, we’ll be opening up the doors to one of our most exciting offerings called the public health career club. And you can find out about it at pHspot.org/club. And if you stick around till the end of this episode, I’ll be telling you a bit more about it. But for now, here’s today’s episode.

Hi, Ted. Good morning, and welcome to the PH SPOT podcast. I am so excited to speak with you today.

Ted 1:48
Good morning, I’m very happy to be with you.

Sujani 1:51
Last one, we spoke about this topic, which is the Doctor of Public Health Program at the University of Toronto. It was back in September of 2020, with Erica, who you know, was one of the individuals spearheading this program at the University of Toronto, the first one in Canada. And the way we had kind of taking the approach of that episode was collecting questions from you know, individuals whio are really interested in this program. And this being the first one in Canada, people from our community had a lot of questions. So we went through had a discussion, just looking at some of those questions and really understanding what the possibilities are with this program. And so now that the first cohort has had almost a year in the program, it’s great to kind of sit down with you as the first official director of the program. And just hear your thoughts about how the program has been and even think about what the future of this means for public health and for Canada and the University of Toronto. And before that I am, you know, selfishly going to just ask you a bunch of questions about your own public health journey, because I am just fascinated with kind of the experience and the background that you come with as a director to this program. So going back, and I hope you don’t mind that I’m going to pull out some dates off your LinkedIn profile. But you know, 1975, you start a Bachelor of Science degree out in Connecticut. And do you recall the moment where you discovered public health? Was it before starting your bachelor’s degree? Was it after? And I’m just curious to hear you know, that discovery of this field for you?

Ted 3:29
Yes, for sure. Well, it certainly wasn’t linear. In fact, I encourage all students not to take a linear path in their development. My main interest as a young scientist was in the respiratory field. I was fascinated with respiratory physiology and, and pharmacology. And that was really the focus, you know, sort of applied biology, the physiology of human performance. I started with an associate degree actually as a respiratory therapist, because I also was interested in patient care, particularly the spectrum of respiratory diseases. I had a younger brother who had asthma and it always troubled me that when I saw him, you know, difficult breathing as a baby, and that’s stuck with me. And that was a sincere catalyst to focus a bit on respiratory disease. But, you know, my background was a core background in solid science, Quinnipiac. It was a small Allied Health college back in 1975. Yes, thank you for reminding. And now it’s actually turned into one of the prominent universities in the US with a medical school or law school. And as you may see from watching primetime television, it has one of the most prestigious polling institutions in the world. It was quite small when I was there, a few buildings and a few trailers, and now it’s a sprawling campus in New Haven County.

Sujani 4:49
And so what put you on the path to then pursue a public health degree at a master’s level and then continue on to a Doctor of Public Health degree at Columbia? I mean, it’s sounded like you were getting ready maybe for more of a scientific role, but then I’m assuming that you kind of wanted to go down the route of like an applied public health degree?

Ted 5:10
Yes, actually, public health afforded me the application of what I learned in respiratory physiology. And it does even go back to to Quinnipiac College, once again, where in my senior year, I had a lecture by Professor Neil Schachter, or remember it extremely well, where he was discussing his work and occupational lung disease, a disease not too many people know about us called byssinosis and it’s from inhaling cotton dust in the cotton textile industry. And that absolutely fascinated me where he was applying very sophisticated tests of lung function to try to uncover the disease in the workplace. I reached out to Professor Schachter and visited his laboratory, which is a another thing I always encourage students to do. It’s, it’s very nice to connect, connections are critical. And Professor Schachter took me into his laboratory. And he ended up becoming my mentor in public health. He was a professor at Yale. And the work we were doing had the input of a biostatistician, Professor Jerry Beck, who was based on the School of Public Health, and I started to see how public health encompassed so many disciplines. And it is very relevant that the Yale School of Public Health is affiliated with the John V. Pierce foundation laboratory. Mr. Pierce was a philanthropist who donated his fortunes into studying human health and comfort. He was involved in heating, ventilation and air conditioning, actually. And that laboratory, which sat next to the School of Public Health at Yale, was doing very, very innovative testing human comfort and the health effects of one’s environment. Thus, I entered into the smallest program in the Yale School of Public Health, which was environmental sciences. So I became very interested in the effects of pollutants and toxins and ambient conditions, you know, heats, humidity, and various aerosols on human health and comfort. And my master’s thesis was a dose response study of the effects of sulfur dioxide inhalation in asthmatics at rest, and during exercise, and those data were actually incorporated into the debates on the national ambient air quality standards on what level of so to and the ambient air should be considered a hazard. So off the bat, it was very applied. And it was it was making, you know, realistic contributions, which was very exciting for me, you do sophisticated work, you’re surrounded by wonderful mentors, but then you see, you know that your work is actually being used to set air quality standards, it was a very important time in my life. You know, I think it’s also important it was at that time, that I got involved in very grassroots public health. And I don’t want to miss going through the whole session with you today. Without mentioning that even in my hometown of Woodbury, Connecticut, we had a small Health Department. And the first select woman had contacted me understanding that I was involved in public health, saying that we really need to expand public health services for the community. It was a growing community and Litchfield County, and Connecticut, many new young families coming and I had actually worked as a volunteer for two years with the Connecticut State Department of Health and various colleagues in the community to form the pumper our District Department of Health. So it had gone from a part time pediatrician who was the director of Health to a public health department that now serves three communities in Connecticut. And, again, that’s the grassroots the importance of knowing that you’re taking your knowledge and ultimately making a difference. And although we like to talk about publications, and a lot of sophistication in the work we do, which is- which is true, I would say I am most proud of that in all of my career of working, you know, going to townhall meetings, to explaining to residents the importance of various public health initiatives. And in fact, you know, I pick on the website time to time as one- one does when you’re involved with the sort of the young child and I was looking at all of the services they provided during the recent pandemic, as well as all of the important services that many people take for granted or don’t really understand these basics of public health such as, you know, food sanitation and subsurface sewage disposal and wastewater management. These are critical critical elements of public health that you know, in some programs tend to get neglected. I am still a bit old school in those points, but I do appreciate the opportunity to dimension that because it is my public health achievement I am most proud of.

Sujani 9:55
And that’s a super fascinating I mean, so early on in your career. You’ve been able to see, you know, the impact of the work that you were doing in the classroom. And I’m wondering, how did you put yourself out there being so early on in your career to be involved in such opportunities to push the agenda on some of these important topics and the advice that you would perhaps, you know, give to some of the individuals who are still students are kind of early on in their career to have maybe similar experiences as you did?

Ted 10:25
Yeah, it may be it comes down to a very fundamental point, you know, I, I had the- I serve on the board of a company in London, Ontario, when its- its founder is famous for the statement of life is a contact sport. Mitch Baron from London, use that term so often. And if you think about it, that’s really the answer to your question. There’s no jest involved. Contacts are so important. If you meet a professor at a lecture, like I did with Professor Schachter, back in 1979, when I was graduating from Quinnipiac, you know how it goes, Oh, we should get together or let’s connect. And then you know, life goes on. And when I attend the scientific meeting, for example, in May, I was in San Francisco giving a lecture at the American Thoracic Society. And I always say to myself, that I want to be 10 new people and connect with them following the meeting. And you know, I do that every year. And sometimes it’s a brief email. And sometimes now, of course, we’re more comfortable with having a quick zoom call, which is actually fosters those connections very much, will something come out of every contact, no. But you know, it’s the old, you know, shots on goal that you start to create a very rich network of individuals. And I do find that that is probably the most critical element for students, most professors, most professionals would love to sit and have a coffee with a student and share and give advice. And now it’s important to get advice from different people, because there are different viewpoints, I take a very non traditional approach to career development. And I often tell students, you know, it’s important to get a strong scientific base mathematical base, become a quasi expert in something, and then move out and let those branches go after you’ve developed the, you know, a strong foundation in one of the natural applied, or even Liberal Arts Sciences to get good at something and then expand is I always, I always share to students.

Sujani 12:30
Yeah, I think that piece about making connections, building relationships, it’s so important, regardless of what field you’re in. And I think with public health, our work being so collaborative, and there’s just so much we can accomplish when you do meet the right individuals that are going to help you solve those problems. So I’m inspired that you have this number and 10 is huge for every single meeting that you go to and knowing how your calendar looks like that’s quite a number of people that you’re connecting with. So that’s a piece of inspiration that I’m going to take away from this call, Ted.

Ted 13:03
Well, thank you. And I’ll point out to you that, you know, that was back in May 16. I think I was there. And even this week, I have some of those follow up calls. You know, it doesn’t happen naturally, that you come home and you call 10 people, but it does take that bit of effort, you know, when I do have a little list my index card, and I’m always confident that from one of those meetings, there’ll be someone who either I can help or they can assist me.

Sujani 13:31
Oh, I love that. Okay, so you know, I’m looking at, again, your kind of LinkedIn timeline, and it looks like between your MPH at Yale and Doctor of Public Health degree at Columbia, there were two years there. And did you just continue kind of the work that you were doing at the laboratory in those two years? Or did you dedicate that time volunteering at the Public Health Unit? Or did something else happen at that point?

Ted 13:55
Yeah, I’m trying to think I remember from my profile that I did graduate in 82, from New Haven. At that point, my mentor at Yale received an endowed chair to go to New York City at Mount Sinai in New York City. He actually recruited me to come to New York to work in his lab with the promise to assist me through my doctoral education. So from 82 through 87, that five years I was working in his lab in New York City, developing various tests of lung function, further studying the disease byssinosis you know, also I enjoy very much designing studies would be looking at various, you know, developing protocols and grants. And, in fact, for for a young scientist, I received the NIHR or three grants for my doctoral thesis, which was also on cotton bract extracts byssinosis and that was followed by an R01 grant. So very early in my career, I had some success in that academic world but then I moved away into industry for several years as as you might get to-

Sujani 15:06
Yeah.

Ted 15:07
Resume.

Sujani 15:07
Yes. I assume that jump wasn’t immediately after your DrPH degree because I see that you kind of went into pharmaceuticals at 99. And there’s about a 12 year gap that I’m not able to put together based on what I was able to look on mine.

Ted 15:23
Yeah, life life spins very fast, doesn’t it?

Sujani 15:26
Yeah.

Ted 15:26
Following my work at Mount Sinai, I was recruited to Richardson Vicks, which was a Procter and Gamble Company. And I think everybody knows Vicks from Vapor Rub and sine x and vicks formula 44. So it was a cough cold allergy company. And I had a very interesting role there, where I was asked to develop a research laboratory, studying the physiologic or health effects of products. And again, I was blessed with opportunities to have a very strong research budget and a strong staff and was able to, you know, develop clinical methods. I remember we used laser Doppler velocimetry to look at blood flow in the nose, and acoustic reflection where you place a sound into the nasal cavity and you measure the reflective sound, which was able to estimate the volume of the nasal cavity, which is important in diseases like rhinitis and sinusitis, and worked with various tests of psychomotor performance to evaluate the soporific effect of anti histamines and we were very much involved in upper respiratory infection. And Richard Vixa, worked very closely with the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where we were doing many, many rhinovirus challenge studies, looking at the Natural History of the common cold. And who would have thought that, you know, back in 1990, when I was working so closely with, with viruses, viral diseases, upper respiratory infection, that it would be so relevant today and understanding everything that’s happening, but it does show that it’s good to be diverse in your development. When we connected this morning, you know, I told you, I never had a bad day. I mean-

Sujani 17:09
Yeah.

Ted 17:09
Every day was exciting. Some of it is, you know, you get good fortune to be surrounded by good teams and colleagues, you know, some of it is keeping an open mind. So I that was a very rich time in my career, where I got to be extraordinarily creative scientifically, and also publish a lot during those years. So all of these points that I just mentioned to you, you know, were peer reviewed publications, which it did establish me as a relevant researcher in both obstructive airway disease and nasal physiology.

Sujani 17:40
And then I suppose that’s what kind of set you up for a number of leadership roles that you took on in the pharmaceutical world.

Ted 17:48
Yes, I think the, perhaps a distinguishing characteristic of of my career in the pharmaceutical industry is I started at the very beginning of the, you know, we call it the value chain or the process. My first position was a pharmacologist, where I was screening drugs and various models for asthma. You know, on the bench, I was a bench scientist for two years. And then I moved into clinical research where I was designing clinical studies to evaluate the safety and efficacy of drugs, also focusing on asthma and chronic obstructive lung disease, and was very fortunate to develop several drugs that actually made to the market and some of them which made a major impact for patients with chronic lung disease, very proud of that work. One drug in particular tiotropium was really 12 years of my life, taking it from early development through to global registration, having the good fortune to travel around the world and going to the regulatory authorities in almost all the continents. It was a very exciting time, we knew we had a very effective and helpful drug. So it was a great time in in my career. And then another component here that is critical, as we spoke about career development, is managing one’s career, because I was asked to leave the clinical world. And with that drug, we entered into a major global alliances with Pfizer. And I was asked to lead that alliance for very, very behind with Pfizer. I mean, we were a number I think 17 in the world then and Pfizer was number one. And that was a very interesting time where we worked and it was a healthy partnership for both sides, which is always wonderful to say so many years later, and my management in the company wanted to challenge my leadership after that 4 years in Germany. I did move from Connecticut to Germany for that position in a senior management role. So I served as the CEO for the company in Portugal for four years. And I very much liked that. And then we come to the journey motif of Canada. Canada was a major business for the company in the top 10. I came to Canada In 2008, to be the president and CEO, where I managed to stay for six years in that role before I had a semi retirement.

Sujani 20:09
That’s incredible. I mean, you know, just looking at your 40 Plus experience that you’ve been able to summarize to us in just merely 20 minutes, it’s, you know, incredible what you’ve been able to accomplish. And here’s a question for you, you know, where, as early professionals who are either graduating or kind of in their first few jobs, you’ve had the opportunity of kind of working in research and industry and now in academia, as well as being exposed to entrepreneurs, with your role as one of the advisors of Lumera capital- What’s your thoughts on, you know, those who are evaluating different areas to build their careers in? And I think I did notice yesterday, when I was doing a bit of reading myself, one of your objectives as a senior fellow at the Institute of Health Policy Management evaluation is about life balance and passion feeling. So I’m curious to hear your thoughts on how one can evaluate all the different opportunities that are available to us.

Ted 21:07
Yeah, you know, to just try to give you some, you know, harvestable points, because it’s not a simple story, as I said to you, you know, it’s not linear, you need to take some chances, you need to go where you will be happy. You know, I think I could have stayed in the pharmaceutical industry, another 10 or 20 years.

Sujani 21:25
Yeah.

Ted 21:26
I would have probably lost out on some very, very rich opportunities and experiences that, you know, we try to cram in, I mean, you know, what is our lifespan, you know, you know, nine years, or whatever my dad is 92, I hope to beat him, we have to understand some very basics there. Because a lot of times, it’s not easy as like, you could say, well, here he is, it’s so easy to say be diverse, we have decisions to make, we have mortgages to pay, you know, we have family that sometimes prohibits, you know, making a an international move, for example, but early in careers, if you have the chance to experience other systems and other countries, highly, highly encouraged. It does give you a bit of a swagger, a cosmopolitan look on life. And that’s important, no matter what area, you’re gonna focus, whether it’s physiology medicine policy, you need a broad lens. The other points that I try to mention, you know, in this alliteration of passion, and persistence, and professionalism, and a bit of patience, it’s difficult that the job market I think, is a bit more difficult now, and one sometimes needs to get in the door. What I mean by that is, there may be a position in your area, you know, you might have wanted to work in one specific therapeutic area and, and you have an opportunity. And another well, if you think you can do that, and all systems are related, get in the door. And then when you get in the door, know your stuff and feel free to try to be exposed to other departments other than the one you were hired into. One example that I give when I was CEO is, you know, we had a feel for safety committee, it might not sound so exciting. I was on the safety committee of the field force. But again, I was very interested in that as a CEO. Because safety, particularly with field forces that are in cars always parked in cars, always walking across the street, I was always interested when that safety committee would come into the executive committee, I paid great attention to what they had to say. And it exposed individuals where I would say, oh, my god that was presented in such an articulate way, and what insights and I would seek out those individuals to help foster their careers. Because, you know, just from a committee of right peripheral committee, there was exposure to the executive committee. And yes, I do get impressed. And when you get impressed, and you, you know, you want to create conditions in your organization for people to grow. If you’re in a good company, you should be able to say that, you know, I work in a place that creates conditions for me to grow. The- The other element, you know, where you’re asking for maybe a quasi advice is, don’t expect your boss or a human resource department to manage your career. You must manage your career. And you must articulate that with your boss or your human resource departments to say, here’s where I want to go. If you followed a bit of chronology and you said, Okay, Ted, you were, you know, you were in the states and he went four years to Germany, four years to Portugal for years in Canada. I beg for two more, because I love it here. You know, it isn’t actually. And after halfway through my assignments, I started to request meetings for what’s going to happen in two years. Because if you wait for two months before your assignment is over, chances are, you know, they’ll say, Oh, I’ll do that another year. We’ll figure something out, et cetera. You need to be the one to manage your own career. And that does not mean not talking to your superiors and your Human Resource individuals, but part of management to me in the human resource world is, you know, performance management, career development and succession planning these points I took serious as a CEO, and I take very serious now, as a board member on several boards. These are critical elements, and anybody listening should never forget.

Sujani 25:22
And you know, when you were in those situations where you were thinking about what your next steps would be, whether that was one or two years down the road, did you have some sort of an idea of, you know, the direction you wanted to go? And you presented that to your managers? Or was this like an open conversation, you are having to explore opportunities? I guess, I’m curious about, you know, what do you use to evaluate what your next steps are going to be?

Ted 25:47
Well, I had a little chuckle, as you can see, because this is an audio but you know, when the German system it was called mag, which was my German isn’t so great, but speaks German, which means between workers speak, that was the system use them in the company, I was employed for many, many decades. And that’s it, I mean, you really need to not wait once a year to have a discussion with your supervisor, periodic performance reviews that include career development. And in fact, I always encourage my subordinates to discuss career development, not at that sort of year end, where you’re going to get graded for the year, use one of those periodically to focus on career development. And then when you have that year end review, you’re able to save did this happen? Because, you know, some people say, I want to be this, but you know, you need to create conditions, you know, are you going to support me and taking these classes, I was very big on rotating individuals through various other departments, I would have a member of the research team, take minutes at our executive meeting. So they understood the business aspect, even though they were fantastic, amazing scientists, they got to appreciate why they were there and how they worked in the context of the business, we are in the business of science. So not to lose too much track to your question, which I do recall, yes, you know, you you do kind of think about where do I want to be next? What do I want to do? My involvement and going to Germany to run, one of the company’s most critical strategic alliances came as a bit of a unexpected opportunity. Okay, no, that would happen. It resulted in a major move out of the states to Germany, and my children went to school at Frankfurt International School to them and high school, there was a big change and positive for everyone. But there, I started to think, Okay, what next, and, you know, having those discussions with your managers, it’s like, I was given the opportunity to take my leadership skills to see if I could run a country. And that was discussion we had, okay, you know, I had a big support system, and all of these alliances, let’s put you somewhere where all of the responsibility stops with you. And that’s really being a country CEO. And as much as you, you know, trust your employees to get it done. The bottom line is, it’s on your time, it’s on your back. And that’s something that you have to embrace and love, which I did. There were many good days and many more good days and bad days, but there were bad days. And you know, you have to roll with those and know how to turn them in to those good days. Like I said, I never, never woke up not excited to go into work. And I would say that with time I became less, you know, rattled by issues, you know, typically, you will learn to revert to very, very basic principles. When you have a very complicated problem. Sometimes I think the more basic you think, the easier you’ll get yourself out of a very complicated situation.

Sujani 28:46
Absolutely. With a role like that. How does one find themselves back in academia, you joined Dalada School of Public Health at the University of Toronto in 2016. So how did that transition take place?

Ted 29:00
When I was the president, CEO here in Canada, the innovation Minister already invited me to serve on the Ontario Health Innovation Council. And I was a bit of an outsider, I must say, I was not a Canadian at that point. And I was with a lot of the who’s who in our health system, and, you know, had great opportunities to meet individuals, you know, like Bob Bell and Stanley Brown and Peter van der Velden from the Lumira. And on that committee, you know, it was interesting because after the work and how I interacted there, and how I attempted to contribute, Stanley Brown had invited me to apply to become a senior fellow at Peter van der Velden invited me to serve as an advisor to his group. And so that gets back to what we spoke about maybe 20 minutes ago that life is a contact sport, right? So, you know, you take those opportunities to serve on various committees and functions and that’s where you meet wonder fool brilliant people. So that said, I took my senior fellow project very seriously at the Elana normally would take one to two students under my wings and come up with various projects and ideas. And I’m proud to say all of them have resulted in publications for students. One of them was related to blending sort of policy and pharmaceutical world and looking at the scientific basis of pharmaceutical promotion and truth in advertising. We looked at truth and advertising in the world of COVID, and evaluated the compliance with the cannabis act primarily with respect to advertising. So I was able to pursue a lot of fascinating projects through becoming a Senior Fellow. And no matter where I was in life, whether it was in the States or in Germany, and Portugal, I always tried to get an adjunct appointment to be around students as that’s how you stay in touch with the evolution of methods and insights in research and policy. So the opportunity arose, where Erica, as you mentioned, at the beginning, she spearheaded the formation of the Doctor of Public Health Program, and did an amazing job in covering all of the bases. And when I understood, they were looking for a more senior person to run the program, because it is a professional degree program. And if we get a minute to talk about the cohorts that come in, it’s quite fascinating. It is not your typical PhD student, for sure. But in any event, I thought that would be an exciting, and I actually felt quite strongly that I can contribute. And I can, you know, make Erica and her team proud in executing what they designed. Because there’s a big difference having it on paper, and then the reality of running the program. And, you know, I’ll say now that, you know, Erica, she passed the baton, but she ran with me, which was great, because she was always there, answers every phone call and email. And I just, I tried to make them very short, just to make sure because I come from a different world, I have not been full time academia, sometimes I move at a much faster pace. So I try to make sure that, you know, things are done in accordance where we maintain the academic rigor and standards. And there’s a lot of policies and procedures that need to be followed. That was also a learning experience for me. And I mentioned that because here I am, in my while you already gave when I graduated high school. So yes, I can say I’m in my seventh decade, and I’m still learning.

Sujani 32:42
Yeah.

Ted 32:43
That’s a very good thing. And I, I quote, my dad, who’s Ted Sr. who says, you know, every five years, you need to learn something new and take it to a level of achievement. That last part is the hard part, you know, you have to take it to a level of achievement, you have to say, not only that I learned something, but I’ve either earned a certificate or passed an exam where I’m able to relay it back to others. So that’s another great piece of advice. Always try to learn something new, even if it’s a little bit outside your area of expertise.

Sujani 33:15
And you know, not to go back to all of your degrees, but I did notice that you do have an MBA and I and I’m assuming that comes from challenging yourself to learn something new in a more formal setting.

Ted 33:26
Yeah, that’s very perceptive. Thank you. And if you notice, you’ve taken a chronological approach to my career, and that was done a mid career.

Sujani 33:34
Yeah.

Ted 33:35
I do describe that to students as it was a brain tease for me. I was a scientist working in a business world, no matter what we do, whether it’s public health and commerce, which we saw very much from the last years of the pandemic, the importance of commerce in what we do. The pharmaceutical industry, has made major contributions to public health. I tried to establish public health as a critical discipline in the pharmaceutical industry. That was important to me. But back to the point is that I was functioning with a lot of business marketing, finance individuals, good professionals. So I thought I would challenge myself to a mid career MBA, which relates back to another point of suggestion that anytime a student asked me and I’ve just finished my PhD or mph, should I apply for an MBA? And my suggestion is not yet. It’s good to have a few years of experience. But you know, there’s the balance. And I think everybody’s situation is different. Their family situation is different. Sometimes, you know, mid career, it’s a little bit tougher to spend your nights doing your homework after you help your child with their homework. I mean, those are the realities of life. So I do respect and appreciate those. You know, have I made sacrifices? Yes. Was I ever regret anything? Absolutely not. So that’s what you kind of want to end up saying,

Sujani 34:55
Yeah, no, absolutely. And talking about mid career kind of education and the incoming cohort of the first doctor public health program in Canada. And I think when we last chatted, you kind of gave me a glimpse into who those individuals were and their backgrounds. And has the university accepted the second cohort yet, and I’m, and I’m wondering if you have, are you seeing similarities between the two groups? Or are they different?

Ted 35:22
Yes. And yes, the cohorts if you had to describe them, sort of in a, in a basic way, mid career professionals, on average, the first cohort was working in a professional job for over 10 years. And on average, it was 10 years since they’re completed their master’s degree in the inaugural cohort, 80% of them are working full time, it is a big sacrifice and challenge. We did finalize the second cohort. And we just continually I mean, to describe these first two cohorts in one word is all two words, very exciting. It’s this amazing group of professionals that come from a diverse background with very keen interests. The major difference I think, in the second cohort is we were fortunate to receive a MasterCard Foundation Fellowship, and we’ll have three students on scholarship from MasterCard, and that are from Sub Saharan Africa. So we’ll be working with them, and they will enrich our cohort tremendously. We have professionals, you know, from all aspects of the public health arena, one one individual in the second chord is in the pharmaceutical industry, we have chief nursing officers, vice presidents of healthcare associations, some practicing physicians, involved in policy. So it’s a very diverse and extraordinarily rich cohort. I can talk about them all day. So I’ll leave that to you to ask further questions, as you see fit.

Sujani 36:55
Yeah. Are you seeing the same number of individuals joining cohort too, I think, you know, when you told me last there was about 11 people in the first cohort.

Ted 37:04
Yes. And I believe we have around 12, maybe 13. In the second cohort, that would be probably as accurate as I can get without looking at the list.

Sujani 37:14
Yes, it was interesting, when you said, you know, it was really helpful to see on paper what this program could look like. And then that you wanted to make Erica and her team proud in terms of how you are going to apply all of that to this first cohort. And, yeah, what has been your experience, you know, seeing this program on paper versus, you know, taking it to the next step, and like seeing it in action?

Ted 37:37
Yes, the program, I would say has, you know, four key elements, you know, of course, the coursework, and then there is an Applied Research Project typically done the first summer that may inform the student’s dissertation, and the fourth area, which is between right before the dissertation or the comprehensive exam. So those are sort of four milestones, you know, what we have experienced with because the students are just currently in their applied research projects, the majority of them is the coursework. So we have made some refinements to try to reflect the more professional nature of the cohort. That’s one thing that, you know, anytime you make a slight change to a program, there is a series of committees to review and approve in order to maintain the, you know, academic rigor, and administrative rigor. And, you know, when I present to that group, I say, expect to see a lot of me because we like to learn from that experience of the first year and be able to make some adjustments to strengthen the courses. You know, one, for example, to to put in a broad sense is that with the demographics, if you will, that I mentioned to you about mid career professionals, their needs for the competencies of the program, in terms of leadership, you know, go beyond basic, they’ve had leadership experience. So we would like to reinforce that real leadership competency to reflect the fact that they are experienced leaders. That’s, I would say, one area, and it is new, that is probably the biggest, you know, change that we’ve seen. And we do have three on campus forums, which have become to be known as burst weeks where, you know, Monday through Friday, all day, we, we have guest lectures, we get to meet different areas of faculty do some case studies. And, you know, we’re evolving that now to be more reflective of of the competencies and to have more of the great community that we have of healthcare professionals getting more involved on the on the outside. So it is a blend of, you know, academic and classroom learning, but that it has to evolve to be being very applied. And as I look at some of the projects that are being conducted by the students, it does reflect that and it reflects the diversity one of our students who’s a chief nursing officer is looking at the you know, reform, recovery and resilience of the health department, following the pandemic, one administrator is evaluating the effects of mindfulness and health care executive, and other student will be evaluating a vaccine hesitancy and other one vaccine safety, it goes on and on of the types of issues that will become important for us both, as we go through this pandemic decade, as it is called by some to not to forget that, you know, before the pandemic happened, we had two major when this program was approved, we were in the middle of two major public health crises, one was the vaping and the valley with young individuals dying of severe lung disease, and of course, the opioid crisis, which is so with us. So there’s many, many things, of course, we tend to speak a lot about the current pandemic, that is very rich in lessons and opportunities. Nevertheless, there’s so much more to the public health world with respect to both chronic disease, infectious disease, environmental health, etc. And policy.

Sujani 41:13
Were you nervous at all, Ted, when you took on this role? One, you know, this program launching in the middle of a pandemic? And secondly, it’s the first one in Canada. And I’m just curious, what was your kind of emotions as you took on this role?

Ted 41:29
Yeah, nervous is not an emotion. Like to describe the experience, maybe maybe if I’m taking a free throw on a basketball court, I get a little nervous, you know, if it’s-

Sujani 41:39
Yeah.

Ted 41:39
Seconds left in the game, you know, I can be called a stone. But now it’s not nervous. But it is a serious appreciation and need to do well, to give the students what they deserve, being alert, and changing what needs to be changed and reinforcing the core program. So it wasn’t nervous, but it was concerned, to be flexible, and to work within a school system. Because we’re going across school program, we’re not, you know, we’re not like don’t have our own department or across departments of the university. You know, being with the first one in Canada, I just want to be sure I capture my experiences. And I am very well connected to the program directors in the other schools in North America, in particular, you know, University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. And in Johns Hopkins, having conversations with other program directors is very important. You know, your question was how to, you know, being the first one in Canada? Well, it is the first in Canada, but there’s a lot of experience south of the border. And I was able to learn a lot from them. And like, for example, NYU, is in the exact same stage we are at at the meeting that the first cohort came in last September. So I do speak with that director. And she’s been also extraordinarily helpful, because we’re still saying, How are we going to design our comprehensive exams and different frameworks and talk about the pros and cons of various approaches. So that’s, that’s been been very helpful. So I think nervous should be substituted by extraordinarily exciting. And being the first program is a wonderful opportunity, we’ll have our growing pains, I mean, don’t get too bothered by the fact that maybe a couple of things were perfect, we will make it perfect. It just takes time.

Sujani 43:33
Not to say love the positivity you bring to everything, Ted, the other neat part of this is that, you know, you also have a Doctor of Public Health degree and how have you used your personal experience, either as a student there, or just like maybe whatever you’ve seen during your time at Columbia and other schools of public health into this program, if at all?

Ted 43:56
I do is share my experiences. And again, I was a work full time, professional. And I do try to be honest with students that you know, your life changes, because you know, you have assignments to do where, let’s say before you were in the program, that time was filled with other things, and often other important things. So you do need to have a tremendous project management. I do try to encourage the students sort of to use their classwork in the first semester to inform their applied research project to inform their dissertation. So there is a pathway, but again, not everybody can take that pathway. You know, sometimes life gets in the way and other deviation. So flexibility is also very critical when you’re directing the program of professionals. I’ve been in their shoes, you know, I was working full time with a young family. When I earned my doctorate and you know, I would get home from school and then put the children to bed. I mean, it’s part of those years that you don’t forget, but it’s so rewarding and the students are extraordinarily professional, extraordinarily fun to speak to, you know, I’m very, very confident that each and every one of them is going to make a positive change in our Public Self. I’m totally sure of it.

Sujani 45:13
I remember you telling me that you spend a lot of time speaking with prospective students. And I’m sure similar questions come up. And I thought we could use the remaining time we have to maybe address some of those questions that you do speak to some of these prospective students about just as a way to maybe at scale, answer some questions that individuals might have if they are considering the program.

Ted 45:35
With the situation or the past few years, a lot of students ask, if, you know is the program remote. And I start with the fundament that University of Toronto does not offer remote doctoral degrees. Nevertheless, the core courses that are required from the public health, the RPh curriculum are offered remote, but there are some hybrid courses where the first week where students are in, they absolutely need to be on campus during those three weeks, and also various methods, electives and free electives. You know, the best courses may not be offered remotely, and one needs to be on campus. Can it be worked out? Yes. But you know, perhaps not optimally. You know, that’s probably the most frequently asked questions, being professionals, many questions coming into the exact timing of the course. And actually, that was a major challenge for me to actually get the actual courses over the three years pinned into a date and time because students are planners, and they need to know that that’s gotten better. And then others about what you know, what is a comprehensive exam, like? That’s actually evolving, comprehensive exams won’t be taken until next year by the first cohort. But of course, everybody wants to know, and, you know, those frameworks that I do know is that it will address the competencies that will be take home, probably, you know, last two weeks, there’ll be a choice of questions to answer that will reflect the current, you know, public health reality, I tried to talk through and be honest, that, you know, haven’t carved that in marble yet, because I’m trying to learn a little bit about the program as it evolves. And also take the experience of the other programs that I spoke about. And I do speak to all of those other universities, and I’m trying to say, Okay, I have a great opportunity to make ours the best, because I know what everybody else does. So I do do take that a little bit slower. Back to your question on questions, I think, you know, it is a self funded program, that might be a little different for some students. And of course, as the program grows, we hope for more opportunities for scholarship, you know, like the MasterCard Foundation, that was a wonderful catalyst to the program. And it’s going to enrich the program terribly. And a lot of questions about supervisors. And it’s good to get a supervisor early in the program, that way, you have another person to be supporting you in a new journey. Again, having 10 years since individuals were in school, there’s a lot of basic administrative questions as well, which is perfectly understandable.

Sujani 48:16
And do you have any insight in terms of how the students are balancing work and school?

Ted 48:22
Yes, you know, we’re small cohort, the cohort is a true cohort, you know, they have their, their chat room, and they’re very well connected as a cohort. And I’m, I wasn’t invited into that chat room to talk about issues they want to address with me, but they’re very open in that and they’re very supportive to each other. And I would say that the faculty is generally supportive of current situation to be as flexible as possible while maintaining the academic rigor, you know, for example, you know, we have very senior professionals that were, were really pulled in different directions over the course of the pandemic, they had very critical roles, that something that was taken into account in terms of you know, what a student needed an extension for paper, etc. We tried to be flexible with that. Everybody does that in their own way? To answer your question, I can only say that I’m very supportive and very available to discuss that. But again, I find that to be a very personal way of people could manage the the balance.

Sujani 49:29
Going back to kind of phrase use as being excited about being the director of the program, and what else do you have planned for? I don’t know if you’ve thought that far ahead. But for the next few years of the DrPH program, are there any exciting things that you want to try out?

Ted 49:46
I do believe it will always evolve as the world evolves. So that’s what I mean being alert to evolving and making sure that new areas that in that Venn diagram cover public health are covered. Example. You know, we use alternative forms of data to measure viruses and wastewater, I made it a point to take the students to see that happen, those aspects of the fundamentals of environmental health and infectious disease, I’d like to integrate that a little bit more in the future, perhaps we’re very focused policy school. But I do see that there are individuals applying to the program that do have a bit of more of an environmental health background. So we’ll maintain the diversity and the skill sets of the of the cohort, being totally prepared to evolve as the world evolves around us, because almost everything touches public health, and students need a great awareness. And lastly, I do hope to integrate more of the great leaders in public health we have across Canada, primarily, but North America and globally to share experiences, a little bit more students have also asked for that, and we try to, to hear that. And also, you know, you said the next few years, and I hope to be able to have alumni that will be there to help me as well. So that’s, that’s something I, I think is probably a major milestone is to start to see the graduates and how that evolves into the promise that I’ve made that we’re going to make a difference with this program.

Sujani 51:22
That’s fantastic. Thanks so much, Ted. And we’ll be sure to kind of link up a number of resources available on the website, as well as your information. It sounds like you’re very open to speaking with prospective students. So if they do have additional questions, they know where to find you.

Ted 51:40
Absolutely. Sometimes it takes a day to get to that email, but I do make sure that I speak to anyone who wishes to speak to me about the program.

Sujani 51:48
That’s wonderful.

Hey, so before you go, as promised, here’s a bit more about the public health career club. So when I think back to the successes that I have had about the almost 70 or so guests that I’ve interviewed, who have discussed their successes, or when I think about the hundreds of professionals that I’ve interacted with a lot of the reflections circle back to having had the right people around us, right. And so knowing the power of this, whether we call it community, or we call it support circle, or your Public Health Network, essentially, we’re talking about the people we surround ourselves with, who lead us to success. And so knowing this, we are launching the public health career club, with a vision of building the largest global public health community. So essentially, we are building the space rooted in community to become the number one hangout spot dedicated to building and growing your dream public health career. And in addition to being able to connect and build meaningful relationships with other public health professionals from all around the world, the club will also offer other great resources for career growth and success, such as mindset coaching, job preparation, clinics, career growth strategy sessions in the form of workshops, seminars, and talks, all delivered by experts and inspiring individuals in these areas. And so you can learn more about how to join the club by visiting phspot.org/club. And we officially will be opening the doors in October of 2022, with perks for founding members. So be sure to get on the waitlist for more information. That’s where we’ll be communicating all the information. And so to kind of wrap this up, I want to tell you that, you know, as I built the PH SPOT community these past five years and now, as we are working to build up the public health career club, this one quote from Oprah always comes to mind. And it’s this surround yourself with only people who are going to lift you higher. And that’s exactly the space we are creating as a space that’s being intentionally curated to bring together like minded public health professionals from all around the world, who will not only push themselves to become the best versions of themselves, but also each other. And I can’t wait to see how this will have a ripple effect in the world as we work to better the health of our populations. And I hope you will be joining us.

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About the Show

PH SPOTlight: Public health career stories, inspiration, and guidance from current-day public health heroes

On the show, Sujani sits down with public health heroes of our time to share career stories, inspiration, and guidance for building public health careers. From time to time, she also has conversations with friends of public health – individuals who are not public health professionals, but their advice and guidance are equally important.

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