While many pursue a career in health out of a love for nutrition, exercise or medicine, Michael Yudell’s path began as a history major. As an undergrad at Tufts University, he studied American and Soviet history with dreams of a career as a filmmaker of historical documentaries. It was while working on a PhD in history at Columbia University that he took classes on the history and ethics of public health, and at that moment his career path changed.
“I was hooked,” he said. Hooked on the history and ethics of health.
As the first-ever vice dean of the College of Health Solutions, Yudell brings a unique historical and ethical perspective to a health college also known for its unique and innovative approach to improving population health.
Yudell joins the College of Health Solutions from Drexel University in Philadelphia where he was a professor and chair of the Department of Community Health and Prevention at the Dornsife School of Public Health. As he considered coming to ASU, he was immediately attracted to the organizational structure at the College of Health Solutions, which had undergone a bold revisioning under Dean Deborah Helitzer’s leadership three years earlier, creating a new model for solving major health problems.
In 2018, the College of Health Solutions disestablished its departments and schools, unifying them under one integrated, interdisciplinary structure. While the programs remained — nutrition, kinesiology and exercise science, health care delivery, biomedical informatics and diagnostics, population health, and speech and hearing science — the barriers separating them were eliminated. From that point on, faculty, staff and students from all of the college’s academic program areas began collaborating to examine complex health challenges from multiple perspectives, with the aim of working with Arizona communities to improve population health. For Yudell, it seemed like the perfect fit.
“This innovative, flattened hierarchy without siloed departments and schools spoke to my own background,” he said. “I have an interdisciplinary PhD in history, ethics and some loose training in biology and genetics, but I didn’t have an interdisciplinary home. Here those barriers are intentionally broken down and are designed to stimulate partnerships across content areas and disciplines and methodologies. It was really exciting to me.”
Yudell’s interdisciplinary training that combines health, history and ethics began in earnest after his history of public health class epiphany. He worked on a Master of Public Health degree concurrently with his PhD in sociomedical sciences at Columbia, did a fellowship at the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences, and had a graduate research assistantship at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. It was there he received training in genetics while working in a laboratory that was doing molecular biology and genomics research.
This eclectic mix of disciplines with humanities studies in ethics and the history of science, combined with training in public health science and genomics, led to two books that Yudell authored with geneticist Rob DeSalle, “The Genomic Revolution: Unveiling the Unity of Life,” and “Welcome to the Genome: A User’s Guide to the Genetic Past, Present, and Future.” His PhD dissertation eventually became the subject of his third book, “Race Unmasked: Biology and Race in the 20th Century,” published in 2014 by Columbia University Press and winner of the 2016 Arthur J. Viseltear Award from the American Public Health Association.
Underlying all of his studies and credentials — a PhD and MPH from the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, a Master of Arts in philosophy in U.S. history from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, and a Bachelor of Arts in history and Soviet and Eastern European studies from Tufts — is a passion for making a positive impact on the health of people and communities.
“It’s about doing good in the world and improving lives. I look at it through a historical lens and think, ‘What can history tell us about our current moment, and what can we draw from the histories of public health, science and medicine, to do better for the populations we serve?’” he said.
Part of that desire for health to “do better” concerns Yudell’s interdisciplinary examination of the history and ethics of autism research, as well as understanding the impact of race and racism in health research. He is currently writing a book with historian Emer Lucey on the history of autism, which closely examines the ethics of autism research. Yudell’s research on race and racism in health focuses on the misuse of race and other population descriptors in biomedical research.
“Our work on race and other population descriptors is ultimately about changing how we think about health disparities. Not reducing them to racial differences, but seeing them organically in the context of health determinants,” he said. “We need to support biological and social scientists in building interdisciplinary bridges to better understand and characterize the impact of health determinants on population health.”
Yudell’s holistic view of population health as a powerful force for positive change is a wonderful match with the mission and goals of the College of Health Solutions, said Helitzer, the college’s dean.
“Michael is joining us at a pivotal time as we ramp up our collaborative efforts to impact some of the greatest challenges in health," she said. "In order to take responsibility for the health of our communities and our part to fulfill the ASU Charter, we must create solutions that are disruptive and change the course of history. Michael’s unique strengths will accelerate our ability to find solutions to complex health problems in even more creative and interdisciplinary ways.”
Now that Yudell has joined ASU, he is working closely with faculty and staff on the college's initiatives in equity, diversity and inclusion. He also plans to continue bringing people together in new ways to do more health humanities research and program development, including advancing the college’s growing global health initiatives and looking at potential new academic programs in this area. Additionally, he is working with the college’s faculty and staff success teams to further strengthen the internal organization and culture.
Yudell also aims to continue his rather unique hobby, unique at least for a college vice dean: storytelling and improv comedy. In Philadelphia, he hosted one of the city’s long-running comedy improvisation shows called Study Hall, an ensemble cast with Yudell as a professor telling true stories from history, health and his own life to a classroom of six to eight improv players posing as his students who then perform improv comedy around the story topics. The show just celebrated its seventh anniversary and will continue without Yudell, although he plans to return to Philadelphia occasionally to perform and hopes to bring a version of Study Hall to a stage somewhere in Arizona.
For now, though, he plans to do a lot of listening, learning and getting to know the faculty, staff and students at the College of Health Solutions and across ASU, which will help shape his priorities and agenda as vice dean. He sees coming back from COVID-19 as the immediate challenge — and opportunity.
“People are coming back to a world where we feel slightly off-balance, and we need to think about how we bring people back and make them feel good about their workplace, and to reengage and be energized about our mission,” he said. “It’s been a really hard year for everybody. There’s been a great deal of loss, grief, isolation and uncertainty about what the next six months are going to look like, and we’ve got to navigate that together.”
The College of Health Solutions will officially welcome Yudell at a meet-and-greet reception from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Friday, Sept. 10, in the new Wexford Innovation Center on the Downtown Phoenix campus. All are invited to attend, and registration is required.