Inaugural dean chosen for The University of Texas School of Public Health San Antonio

Vasan Ramachandran, MD, a distinguished public health researcher at Boston University and principal investigator of the Framingham Heart Study, has been named founding dean of The University of Texas School of Public Health San Antonio. The new school is a strategic collaboration of The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UT Health San Antonio) and The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) and is one of three schools of public health in The University of Texas System.

William L. Henrich, MD, MACP, president of UT Health San Antonio, and Taylor Eighmy, PhD, president of UTSA, jointly announced Ramachandran’s appointment, effective Sept. 1.

An internationally known and highly respected physician-scientist and clinical epidemiologist, Ramachandran’s research has focused on heart failure, blood pressure and cardiac remodeling. “Vasan is the ideal person to lead and build our city’s new School of Public Health,” Henrich said. “His leadership of multiple studies gathering data on biological and lifestyle risk factors, his impressive track record of National Institutes of Health funding, his mentorship of diverse students, and his experience directing the first public health school in India all attest to this.”

In addition to Ramachandran’s extensive and relevant experience, he is “a thoughtful, collaborative and authentic leader who has the heart of a public servant,” Henrich said.

Establishment of the School of Public Health and recruitment of its dean introduces a new era for UTSA’s and UT Health San Antonio’s shared mission to serve the public good, Eighmy said. “We seek to improve public health in close partnership with the city of San Antonio, Bexar County, our research and development partners, and the health care community. This new school allows us to meet critical public health workforce needs and is a major boost to both institutions’ positive momentum and commitment to being a center of excellence in public health education, service and research,” he said.

“The new joint school of public health by UT Health Science Center San Antonio and UTSA will be a tremendous resource for San Antonio and South Texas, and the appointment of an outstanding inaugural dean demonstrates the power of this collaboration,” UT System Chancellor James B. Milliken said. “The Board of Regents and I are looking forward to Dr. Ramachandran’s leadership and to the success of this important new school.”

Pandemic exacerbated issues

“Launching the new School of Public Health in San Antonio is a transformative opportunity of a lifetime,” Ramachandran said in a phone interview this week. “We are starting the School of Public Health at a very critical time in the history of the country, the state, the city and the region. We are still in the throes of a pandemic, two and a half years plus, and this crisis has exposed how challenging it is to deal with major public health challenges on the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Much of the frontline battle of the pandemic is fought by public health workers, and yet there is a gap in infrastructure related to the training of the public health workforce, Ramachandran said. “Meanwhile, the pandemic continues in the context of the burden of chronic disease, which is very high in this region,” he said.

The pandemic has also revealed “a social patterning of disease,” Ramachandran said. Demographic characteristics of people who have been worst hit are frontline workers, people of color, people who lack health insurance, mothers of young children and other vulnerable populations.

“Throughout the course of the pandemic, we have navigated, feeling our way, because it’s been very dynamic,” Ramachandran said. “And we have tried to carry the public along with us, not always successfully.”

UT Health San Antonio and UTSA each offer complementary programs and synergy to the new School of Public Health, said Jennifer Potter, PhD, vice president for research at UT Health San Antonio. For example, infectious diseases, cancer, epidemiology and many other areas of study are strengths of UT Health. UTSA contributes data sciences, kinesiology, demography and other diverse areas. Potter co-chaired the Search Advisory Committee with Heather Shipley, PhD, senior vice provost of academic affairs and dean of University College at UTSA, along with seventeen colleagues from UT Health San Antonio, UTSA and the San Antonio community.

Decades of experience

Ramachandran has served on the faculty of the Boston University School of Medicine and School of Public Health for more than a quarter-century and as principal investigator of the Framingham Heart Study since 2014. The Framingham study is a population-based, observational cohort study initiated by the U.S. Public Health Service in 1948 and subsequently funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to prospectively investigate the epidemiology and risk factors for cardiovascular disease. It has grown into an ongoing, longitudinal study gathering prospective data on a wide variety of biological and lifestyle risk factors and on cardiovascular, neurological and other types of disease outcomes across three generations of participants and its accompanying Omni cohorts of non-white individuals.

Ramachandran also has served since 2019 as one of the principal investigators for the Risk Underlying Rural Areas Longitudinal Study (RURAL) aimed at addressing critical gaps in the knowledge of heart and lung disorders in rural counties in the southeastern U.S. This study is of 4,600 individuals ages 25-64 from 10 rural counties in Southern Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta. 

With a current active annual research grant portfolio of nearly $20 million and as a recipient of more than $100 million from the National Institutes of Health over the last 20 years, Dr. Ramachandran is a prolific and collaborative investigator. He has more than 1,060 publications to his name, including many in prominent journals such as The New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, the Journal of the American Medical Association and Circulation.

Region’s unique needs

San Antonio is a majority-minority city that, with its large and growing Hispanic population, reflects the demographic future of the nation. Many areas of the city and South Texas region are identified as Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAs) by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration.  

Unique health challenges include infectious diseases, diabetes, maternal and child health, mental health and substance use disorders, health care disparities, cancer and injury prevention. The new school’s faculty will propose innovative public health solutions to these problems.

Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic produced a strong demand and need for public health education surrounding vaccination, masking, social distancing and handwashing. The School of Public Health will enable local residents to train for public health careers to meet ever-emerging health challenges.

The University of Texas System Board of Regents recognized that the region’s persistent disparities in key health outcomes require a public health approach. In November 2021, the Regents voted to authorize UT Health San Antonio and UTSA to develop a new public health school.

A student census of almost 400 is planned within the first five years, with a Master of Public Health degree offered beginning in 2024 and a Doctor of Public Health degree program to be developed.

Total startup costs for the School of Public Health are budgeted at approximately $40 million, including existing building renovations, program development and Ramachandran’s recruitment as dean. In June, Bexar County allocated $10 million to support the school’s development.

Take a tour of The University of Texas School of Public Health San Antonio here.

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