Aubert first came to Brown in 2017 at Provost Richard Locke’s request. He joined renowned physicist Sylvester James “Jim” Gates Jr. and astronomer John Asher Johnson in the original cohort of distinguished senior scholars from historically underrepresented groups invited for temporary appointments at Brown. “They told me about the other two,” Aubert says with characteristic humility, “and I thought they were reaching out to me for a recommendation for somebody to join the rocket scientists.” Aubert laughed, remembering when he realized they wanted him to take on a position as a Provost Visiting Professor. “I was perplexed.”

But Aubert’s background in government and business, including work at the CDC and leading analytics at private healthcare companies, set him apart from many of his academic peers, and mentoring students came naturally. Although he wasn’t a traditional pick, and despite his initial hesitation, Aubert quickly fell in love with Brown.

“It was a great experience. I got to teach in Ira Wilson’s class, so it gave me more touch points with students and I really enjoyed that.” After his one-year appointment was up, Aubert was asked to become faculty director of Brown’s Presidential Scholars program, a cohort-based program that brings high-achieving students from lower-and-middle-income families to Brown. In 2021, he joined the School of Public Health’s leadership team as interim associate dean for diversity and inclusion, along with his faculty appointments as visiting professor of the practice of health services, policy and practice, and of race and ethnicity in America.

We spoke to Dean Aubert about his transition to interim dean, his thoughts on diversifying higher education, and the ways Brown SPH is preparing to meet the public health challenges of the future.

You took on the role of Interim Dean of the School of Public Health at an extraordinary time, not just in the world and for public health, but for the School itself. How did you decide to take over the reins of SPH?

First, let me say that I really enjoy being part of the Brown School of Public Health community. I love that part of what I do. And it’s an exciting time for the school — we’re fairly young, but we’re undergoing rapid growth. When Dean Jha was called to serve the country, President Paxson and Provost Locke asked me to fill in for him and I also saw it as a call to service.

I welcomed the opportunity to help execute on Ashish’s expanded vision for the school. We have great faculty, we have tremendous students, we are situated in a community and in a state where you can actually measure impact. That’s pretty exciting.

What are some highlights of your tenure so far?

We continue to attract world-class faculty, and applications for our graduate programs have shown robust growth. Jennifer Nuzzo has joined the faculty and hit the ground running, putting together the Pandemic Center. The center will be recognized for its academic work, but also for developing public health leaders and students with knowledge and expertise in the space of pandemic preparedness. She has contacts and experience both locally and globally, with a vision to put students in leadership positions around the world. I think that’s very exciting.

You can no longer think about public health without thinking of the potential threats of infectious diseases. In addition to the things that we normally think of, like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, the threats of infectious diseases are now a permanent part of the public health landscape.

Interim Dean Ronald Aubert

Another new initiative I’m really excited about is the Information Futures Lab. Professor Claire Wardle and her team are doing incredibly important work focused on information disorders, which are pervasive in our society, especially through the pandemic, and will continue to be a problem as we talk about issues of climate change. The Information Futures Lab’s recently launched fellows program is a great new initiative as well. I think it’s going to become a distinguishing characteristic of the Brown School of Public Health.

You’ve been practicing public health for a long time. Looking back over your almost 40-year career, what do you see as the most dramatic change that’s happened in the field?

When I was a student, and for a good portion of my research career, the focus was on chronic diseases. Other than the early days of the HIV epidemic, we didn’t think about infectious diseases very much and neglected them in terms of funding as well.

The fact is, we have grown up in a highly-vaccinated world and we haven’t seen the impact of some of the infectious diseases on a broad scale, as other countries have. It wasn’t a high-priority area. And then when it started to become one, it found itself in the midst of this political turmoil.

Our very divisive politics complicated things a lot. COVID’s impact on the economy and on morbidity and mortality really kind of shook us in a way that we were not prepared for. So I think that is a big change: You can no longer think about public health without thinking about the potential threats of infectious diseases. In addition to the things that we normally think of — like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer — the threats of infectious diseases are now a permanent part of the public health landscape.

The other major change is in the way people get information. It’s so much different now than it was even 10 years ago. Being responsive to that is a real challenge. And that brings us back to the important work being done by the Information Futures Lab.

You’ve had a unique career trajectory: from diabetes researcher, to U.S. Public Health Service officer, to the private sector, to academia. How has the breadth of your career experience prepared you for this moment at the School?

The combination of leadership experiences I’ve had in both government and industry have been extremely helpful in my transition into this role. There are elements in the academy that are more akin to government, and then there are others that have the pace and the innovation that you find in private industry. My career has given me background in research, applied public health, population health, and healthcare management, and those are all areas of deep discovery taking place in the school. So the research being done here really resonates with me; I love having the opportunity to champion and advocate for the applied work going on in the school.

And I must say, my background helps me to advise students as well. There are so many students who aren’t sure what they want to do, and that’s a great conversation to have with me. I get a lot of interest from students because of the different kinds of things I’ve done.

I think the thing to understand is that we can’t have such a narrow view of public health. It’s not just what happens in health departments. It’s anywhere where there’s some responsibility for a population of people. That could be a whole variety of other settings where people can do work that is interesting and impactful.

A particularly distinguished element of your career has been your leadership experience working to advance diversity in higher education. What do you see as the brightest opportunities for improving equity in graduate education?

One of the things that is unique to Brown, is that Brown really thinks about how to incorporate conversations around equity and inclusion throughout the curriculum. I think that’s very important in terms of how we educate our students.

Opportunities that Brown provides for students, like the Presidential Scholars program and the Health Equity Scholars program, those are also really, really powerful, not only in terms of transforming the trajectories of the students we have the opportunity to educate, but as a way for us to really reshape the face of public health leadership.

I think the thing to understand is that we can’t have such a narrow view of public health. It’s not just what happens in health departments. It’s anywhere where there’s some responsibility for a population of people. That could be a whole variety of other settings where people can do work that is interesting and impactful.

Interim Dean Ronald Aubert

And I think these programs and others like it are beginning to bear fruit. I just returned from a meeting of deans and program directors in public health and it was the most diverse group of people I’ve been around in a professional meeting, ever. And so I think it’s happening. The more people we get into leadership positions who have these diverse points of view, I think that’s our best chance to really make a difference.

Spoken like a true Brunonian! Is our desire to make a difference in the world what makes Brown special?

When I first came to Brown, I knew the students were going to be really smart, and that’s absolutely true. And I knew that they were going to have a certain sophistication because of where a good chunk of them come from, but what I didn’t anticipate is just how pervasive the level of kindness is amongst students here at Brown. And that is what makes it a really wonderful place.

There really is opportunity for a much better world, by putting these kinds of people in positions of leadership. That’s my deep hope.