Ross Brownson is a huge baseball fan, so it’s not surprising to find birthday wishes to him written on outlines of baseball caps lining a wall in his office. “Make America Healthy Again,” said one. “Amazing Mentor,” said another.
Both are fitting sentiments for the nationally renowned professor, author and director of the Prevention Research Center. But it’s another line, from the baseball movie “Field of Dreams,” that Brownson adapted for talking about his decades of work in public health: “If you build it they will come.”
“That’s a theme of our work,” he said, noting the PRC’s ability to draw top quality public health experts and students to work in chronic disease prevention and evidence-based public health practice. “Our center has attracted highly talented students, staff and faculty – we’ve got a great crew.”
Brownson says he “stumbled into” public health in Colorado, where he grew up. A triathlete, he became interested in the health effects of the environment and got his PhD in environmental epidemiology at Colorado State University, where he did some of the first studies of secondhand smoke and lung cancer among nonsmokers.
He was working in retail in a shop for triathletes when his mentor, who had left the university to become Missouri’s director of public health, invited him to move east and join the department. Eight years later, Brownson was leading a division of 75 state employees in Jefferson City, while working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Missouri Legislature. He had always had an interest in policy, but his work in Missouri helping to pass bills and get funding for chronic diseases gave him the policy bug for good.
“It taught me a lot,” he said. “You find out how the real world operates, how information is used, what works and what doesn’t.” He became interested in evidence-based public health, and building capacity in health departments to deal with chronic disease, obesity and physical activity.
Brownson left the health department in 1994 for Saint Louis University, where he helped create its public health program. In 2008, he left SLU along with several colleagues for Washington University’s Brown School, again to help start a new MPH program.
His Field of Dreams continues, with CDC’s recent refunding of the PRC, which will give the center the backbone to staff students, faculty and scholars to develop their own projects. It also will bolster his focus on developing the next generation of public health experts and advocates.
“At this point in my career, the most important thing I can do is to be a good mentor,” he said, a role that gives him as much or more satisfaction than his myriad of other accomplishments. “I’ve been fortunate to have wonderful mentors; it’s made all the difference in my career.” he said.
Learn more about Ross here.
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