Dr. Jennifer Johnson

Jennifer Johnson was happy in her position as a professor of psychiatry at Brown University when Michigan State University came calling. Would she be interested in joining the College of Human Medicine in Flint where she could help build a public health program in partnership with the community? She said yes.

“It is in a way a radical experiment,” she said, the idea of building an entire academic department in partnership with a community. “I thought that was so novel. I was convinced that this was the way to do it. It strengthens both the academic excellence and real-world impact of our work.”

She arrived in 2015 to a nearly empty building, the first research faculty member employed by the college in Flint. Much has changed since then.

On April 1, Johnson assumed a new job as the founding chair of the Charles Stewart Mott Department of Public Health, overseeing nearly 200 faculty and staff. Wayne McCullough, PhD, an associate professor, served as interim chair since the department was created in December 2022. It is the first philanthropically named department at MSU, endowed with a $25 million grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. Departmental faculty have already been awarded more than $170 million in federal research grants and other funding.

“Oh, it’s completely different since 2015,” said Johnson, PhD, who also holds the title of C.S. Mott Endowed Professor of Public Health. “The mission is the same, but we’ve grown so much. My goals are to continue to have the best faculty in the country and to build the departmental infrastructure in full partnership with the Flint community.”

The need in Flint is great, but so are the assets. Community partners in Flint were involved in the development of community based participatory research methods, and they are national leaders in these methods. The idea to create an academic department of public health in Flint was brought to MSU by the Flint community. Therefore, Flint is a fitting place to try something completely new: involving community in building and running the department itself, in addition to individual research projects.

“I want to continue to lean into that partnership as the department develops,” Johnson said. She and the rest of the faculty will continue to do public health “research that lives in the real world,” she said.

Poverty and racism are among the factors that contribute to poor health for many of the city’s residents.

“If we can solve them here in Flint,” Johnson said, “we can solve them nationally and around the world.

“We’re excited about our future,” she added. “We’re here because of the strength of the Flint community. I live in Flint, I work in Flint, I worship in Flint. I really love Flint. I hope other academics will come here and see the strength that Flint has.”


Originally published on April 23, 2024 by Michigan State University College of Human Medicine