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ConnectedMichael Glenwood

Connected

Aruna Chandran, An academic researcher and in-the-trenches epidemiologist, bridges two worlds

For seven years, Aruna  Chandran, MD, MPH ’04, was  every bit the globetrotting public health professional. A junior faculty member in International Health and an Iowa native, she had a dog-eared passport and a public health career measured in published academic papers as well as frequent flyer miles.

In Mexico and Brazil, she examined interventions designed to reduce high rates of traffic injuries and deaths. She studied bacterial meningitis in children in southern India, and in Pakistan she assessed childhood nutrition issues and strategies for mitigating household injuries. Her interest in childhood respiratory disease among Native Americans led her to Navajo and Apache reservations in the Southwest.

Then everything changed. In January 2012, her focus shifted from global to local. Instead of addressing needs around the planet, she chose to confine herself to a mere 92 square miles of it—Baltimore City. That month, she became chief of Epidemiological Services for the Baltimore City Department of Health.

“One thing I missed [while travelling] was living in or near the community I was working for,” Chandran says, explaining her reasons for making the change. “This idea of doing something for my immediate surroundings and local population was appealing.”

Two more compelling reasons to stay put (for now) are due to be born this spring: Chandran is expecting twins, a boy and girl.

A Career Times Two

The city health department resides in a low-slung brick building on East Fayette Street in the Jonestown neighborhood. To the west is a phalanx of downtown office towers and the city hall dome. Looking eastward presents the cluster of Johns Hopkins buildings on the hilltop East Baltimore campus, site of the Bloomberg School and Hopkins Hospital. This location is symbolic for Chandran because, though she has traded red-eye flights for rush-hour traffic, she has not severed ties to Johns Hopkins. Instead, she transferred to the Department of Epidemiology where she continues to teach as an associate scientist.

Now she divides her time between the two symbolic domes in a hybrid public health position.

“I think it’s working out fantastically,” said former Baltimore City Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot, MD, who recently took over as New York City’s first deputy commissioner of health. “The city [of Baltimore] benefits from a top-notch epidemiologist who is very comfortable both in academia and working in an environment where the demands are coming from all over the place—from constituents and elected officials.”

Chandran isn’t the first epidemiologist to divide her time between the city and the Bloomberg School. Her position, vacant for three years, had earlier been held by research scientist Caroline Fichtenberg, PhD ’07, in a joint arrangement. Johns Hopkins pays Chandran’s salary and the city reimburses the school for time she spends in the Health Department.

Chandran’s office at the Health Department is windowless, so see can’t see the Baltimore skyline or either dome from her desk. It really doesn’t matter since she spends her days looking at Baltimore through the prism of data—the numbers, stats and figures that provide a picture of this city’s overall health. Her job is to “collect, compile and analyze” such data, she says, be it the density of liquor stores, the rate of new HIV infections or the percentage of Baltimoreans lacking health insurance.

“It’s a lot of crunching numbers and interpreting those numbers and attending meetings where I share those numbers,” Chandran explains. “If you look at my life here versus the life of an academic epidemiologist it probably doesn’t look all that different except that now, I have to be ready to answer quickly and be willing to accept some uncertainty and incomplete knowledge because the city doesn’t wait for you to have perfect numbers.”

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