New Faculty
David Savitz Professor of Community Health Credit: Mike Cohea/Brown University

David Savitz
Professor of Community Health

By David Orenstein  |  September 1, 2010  |  Email to a friend

When David Savitz arrived at Brown Aug. 31 as professor of community health, it was by way of the headlines. A week before, he had co-authored a commentary in the Annals of Internal Medicine to accompany a study on the respiratory risks faced by oil spill cleanup workers in Spain. Savitz, who through the Institute of Medicine has advised researchers on studying health effects of the recent Gulf oil spill, was quoted on confirming that workers might suffer effects even years after finishing their work.

For decades, Savitz has sought to clarify the murky waters of two of the more pressing questions in public health — both the risks of environmental exposures and problems associated with pregnancy and fertility. He sees great value in bringing sound science to issues where little is truly understood, but there are urgent public concerns and commensurate efforts to craft policy.

Problems associated with reproduction weigh heavily on the public, especially considering that infertility, premature births and miscarriages all occur with frequencies of around 10 percent, Savitz says.

“You can make a pretty compelling case that we need to be able to do better,” he says. “There is a reason those things happen and we need to do the work to figure out what that is.”

In environmental exposure, meanwhile, Savitz has conducted several studies to determine whether there are real health risks associated with electromagnetic radiation emanating from high-voltage power lines and even home wiring. Over time, he says, the results have been encouraging: These electromagnetic fields seem safe, although the door should always remain open to further research.

What Savitz finds appealing about environmental epidemiology is that research findings often translate into real societal impact.

“There is such a close link between what we know and what we do about it,” he says. “There is a societal will to act when we discover something causing problems in the environment. We are really hungry for information to regulate wisely and to set standards of exposure at the right levels. It puts researchers in closer communication with policy-makers.”

Although Savitz is making a new start at Brown, he is no stranger to his field. Most recently he was director of the Disease Prevention and Public Health Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Before that, he had spent 20 years at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, where he ultimately served as chairman of the epidemiology department. In 2007 he was elected to membership in the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, a considerable honor.

Many factors attracted Savitz to Rhode Island. One is that he’ll have an opportunity to help build up the perinatal research program at Women & Infants Hospital. Another is that he not only regards his public health colleagues at Brown as having world-class expertise, but also sees the program faculty as very cohesive intellectually. Larger schools of public health, much like any institution, can break down into separate intellectual fragments that no longer fit together. Although Brown’s program is growing fast — Savitz is one of three community health professors starting this fall — he says Brown is proceeding strategically to ensure the cohesion isn’t lost.

And of course many at Brown share Savitz’s desire to turn research into societal action and policy.

“Something that’s very much emphasized in the public health program at Brown is trying to ‘mix it up’ in the real world,” he says.