U-M SPH in Israel: Reflecting Back and Moving Forward

The University of Michigan School of Public Health trip to Israel was in many ways an expedition—it enabled us to experience Israel for the first time or once again, to uncover new opportunities for research, and to learn about a different culture that has much to teach us as well as to learn from us.

The SPH delegation to Israel included: Andrew Maynard, Environmental Health Sciences; Laura Rozek, Environmental Health Sciences; Carlos Mendes de Leon, Epidemiology; Arnold Monto, Epidemiology; Kai Zheng, Health Management and Policy; Marc Zimmerman, Health Behavior and Health Education; LoriLee Rebhan, Director of Advancement; and Martin Philbert, Dean.

The SPH delegation in a Bedouin village

The SPH delegation in a Bedouin village

My move to Israel this summer to work at the University of Haifa School of Public Health coincided with the faculty delegation’s trip, and as a recent alumna of the Master of Public Health program, I was invited to join the group and blog about the experience.  When I found out I would be accompanying a group of SPH researchers on their trip to Israel, I never expected a week full of adventure and inspiration.  I had been to Israel several times before and had seen many of the small country’s unique and ancient treasures.  But, I had not experienced the country through a public health lens.  Accompanying a group of public health professionals gave me the opportunity to see the country’s public health successes as well as the challenges, and to identify the many opportunities that could be tapped through collaboration and exchange.

Beautiful Israeli sunset

The trip focused on three areas that Dean Martin Philbert suggests are the future for public health: government (the Ministry of Health), the private sector (Clalit – a not-for-profit healthcare provider) and academia (Ben Gurion University).

On the first morning of the trip, I could feel the faculty’s eagerness about what was to come.  And throughout the trip, their anticipation and curiosity only increased.  For me, it felt like being in a classroom of bright, inquisitive students—with each question more questions followed, and previously undiscovered territory led to new possibilities for research, student internships, and scholar exchanges.

Martin Philbert called the visit an “unmitigated success.” This was the case not only because the delegation met with well-respected organizations and individuals across the country.  It was because the faculty were eager to establish lasting collaborations between Israel and various departments and disciplines across the University.  It was, as Philbert said, “the level of faculty enthusiasm and engagement (on both sides), the well-posed questions, the quality/quantity of available data to address these questions, and the intellectual resources (on both sides)” that suggests a future of “rich and meaningful engagement.”

Dean Martin Philbert and Professor Arnold Monto

Dean Martin Philbert and Professor Arnold Monto

What surprised me most was the group’s ability to swiftly move from a serious conversation to a debate about the origins of ice cream or the best restaurants in Ann Arbor.  I was happy to see that even talented professors easily joked around and unwound when the time was right. Beyond being purely entertaining, these occasions enabled the faculty to connect with the Israelis on a personal level; they learned more about why their new partners became researchers and what issues are really close to their hearts. It was often in these most relaxed moments of the trip during which the greatest ideas for collaboration took shape.  For instance, one evening at dinner two faculty members came up with a research question to address adverse health outcomes in the Bedouin population.  They are now working to make this research project a reality.

In true Michigan form, several other faculty members have also already developed ideas for joint research projects. Professor Arnold Monto, a leading influenza expert who has a longstanding relationship with Ran Balicer of Clalit Research Institute, said he plans to start collaborative work on influenza vaccine effectiveness very quickly.  Monto is also hoping that Balicer can visit Ann Arbor in early October to facilitate collaborative work between Israel and SPH.

Dr. Ran Balicer and Professor Kai Zheng at Ben Gurion University

Dr. Ran Balicer and Professor Kai Zheng at Ben Gurion University

The faculty and staff of U-M SPH prioritize international partnerships between institutions and between nations because of the impact these relationships have on local, national, and global public health.  Philbert explained, “Our effectiveness will only be enhanced by partnerships with the organizations with which we visited in much the same way that they continue to be in other regions of the world including West & South Africa, the South American continent, China, India and other regions of the globe.” Developing a lasting relationship with Israel during this expedition was another step toward expanding U-M SPH’s and the University of Michigan’s international presence.

Reflecting back on the trip, I most enjoyed learning about pressing health issues impacting Israel’s population, the diversity of research initiatives already taking place to address these issues, and the many possibilities for future projects.  I very much appreciated getting to know the wonderful faculty we have at U-M SPH and picking their brains about their experiences as research scientists and as people. I’m forever grateful to have been a part of this first trip of what appears to be many more to come.

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