Dean Barbara K. Rimer steers the No. 1 public school of public health into a dynamic future.
What’s your role in public health?
First, it is to lead a school of public health. So, I view part of my role as driving quality and innovation in all aspects of what we do – education, research and practice. I’m where the buck stops, so I am accountable for what happens in the Gillings School. But I also view my role as pushing us to examine ourselves and what we do so we can prepare for the future — and even lead the future.
I also view a big part of my role as helping people in the School to do hard things in terms of adapting to meet evolving societal needs and, especially, to become more diverse and inclusive in all we do. But I also want to help each person at Gillings thrive.
I first came to public health as an English major who wanted to make the world healthier. When I was looking at graduate school, few thought about public health. It was not in my vocabulary, but a family friend helped me to see that public health was the pathway to achieve my goals.
Over the years, I have come to see the assets associated with having been an English major, following Gustave Flaubert’s dictum of le mot juste — the right word — and taking great care in how we communicate. The Monday Morning blog I created — and which several people, including Lisa Warren, Jennie Saia and others help to polish — has provided me an outlet to talk about important topics like race, equity and even love.
Can you describe your focus area in one sentence?
Chief visionary and editor who provides nudging and quality control.
I am not the only one in the School with vision, but I always have a vision of where we should go, with input from many. I’m also the one who will edit almost anything we produce and nudge — politely push — people when we seem off track.
Above all, I focus on being excellent every day — but excellence with heart. People really matter to me.
What do you think the field of public health will look like in the next ten years?
Of course, no one can predict with certainty, but I bet it will look quite different.
In the United States and other countries, I hope that the pandemic will have motivated greater long-term funding for public health, not just to prevent future pandemics but also to work on fundamental health and related inequities that result in greater sickness and death for some groups.
I hope that advances in other fields, especially artificial intelligence and machine learning, will have become widely used in public health and that we will have better disease prediction and other models. Next time there is an outbreak, our public health people should not be using faxes to track cases.
We also should have strong interoperability between data systems. I hope that there will be better integration of data across sources and uses. If someone gets a vaccine in another state, it should be known to officials in North Carolina, for example. Our data systems are antiquated. We should be better at partnerships and collaborations across sectors and problems.
How have you pivoted in response to the coronavirus pandemic?
On multiple levels — at the School level, helping to create a culture and environment in which people can continue to thrive, even when working remotely. Senior leaders worked together to get permission from UNC leadership to be a pilot site for remote work.
This was really important to me. As a school of public health, I wanted us to be an exemplar for how employees could continue to support our mission and accomplish their goals but have some agency over their work lives and be in positions to adapt to the changing pandemic. And, of course, we wanted our employees to be safe and healthy.
I saw that people could be highly productive working remotely. I had never worked at home other than nights and weekends. I learned that I could work very effectively at home and in Rosenau Hall.
Who are you when you’re at home?
I’m pretty much the same person everywhere. I am always thinking about the School, mulling things over, having new ideas… but when home, I have the incredible luxury of being with my husband, Bernard, and lab, Dickens, even though I do not see them for hours on end. I’m a consistent person — not one person at home and someone else at work.
OK, I’m a little crazier at home. I absolutely love up Dickens every time I see him!
In the past, I left home when it was dark and returned after dark. Now, I see the neighborhood where I live and have figured out how to do a few walks a day. I never saw the kids playing before. These days, I see them and enjoy them. (The neighborhood kids, that is — we do not have our own.)
The pandemic has been really hard. Like many people, my workday never ends, and the boundary between home and office is blurred. Still, there have been gifts, like seeing more of Bernard and Dickens and walking outside instead of going to the gym. I recognize that not everyone has those benefits.
I’ve shared photos on the blog of the heron that sometimes visits our neighborhood pond. That heron makes me so happy.
The pandemic has made me more grateful — for the fabulous people in our School, colleagues across UNC-Chapel Hill and around the world, being healthy, continuing to learn, great NPR shows and rediscovering my sisters through Zoom.
It’s definitely been the worst of times, especially for those who have lost people they love. But even the worst of times offers moments of hope and joy.
Read more interviews in The Pivot series.