Alumni Profile: Dr. Jordan Smoller, SM '97, SD '01
Once a month, the Office of Alumni Affairs highlights the work and accomplishments of an HSPH alumna/us in our Alumni Profiles series. We ask alumni to speak to how their HSPH experience influenced their career path and their work in public health, as well as to share any advice they have for current students.
What motivated you to pursue a public health education at the Harvard School of Public Health?
Associate Vice Chair
Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Psychiatry
I had always been drawn to public health and epidemiology – it was kind of the “family business” since my mother is a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics. As a psychiatrist, I was keenly aware that neuropsychiatric disorders are leading cases of disability and major challenges to public health. In 1996, I had finished my residency in psychiatry and decided to pursue a career in psychiatric and genetic epidemiology. I knew that HSPH had an NIMH training grant with outstanding faculty in these areas and so the opportunity to study at HSPH seemed too good to pass up. I wanted to get more rigorous research training so I began by getting an MS in epidemiology. When that was finished, I decided I wanted more and ended up applying to the doctoral program which I completed in 2001.
How has HSPH impacted your career path?
The training I got at HSPH transformed my interests and approach to research. I became much more quantitatively oriented and I learned an enormous amount about statistical and epidemiologic methods that has shaped my research ever since. Epidemiology is really about the art and science of causal inference – how to transform observation into an understanding of the determinants of disease. My own research has focused on illuminating how genes and experience contribute to neuropsychiatric disorders and having that grounding in rigorous approaches to causal inference has been invaluable.
What have you been doing since leaving HSPH?
Over the past decade, I have built a broad research program in psychiatric genetics and epidemiology at Massachusetts General Hospital. The program encompasses child and adult psychiatric disorders as well as studies of the impact of genes and experience on neuroimaging and other measures of brain functioning. I am currently Associate Vice Chair of the MGH Department of Psychiatry and Director of the Psychiatric Genetics Division. In addition to being an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, I’ve maintained my links to HSPH as Associate Professor in the Department of Epidemiology. I am also Director of the Psychiatric and Neurodevelopmental Genetics Unit in the MGH Center for Human Genetics Research and co-director of the Genetics and Genomics Unit of the MGH Clinical Research Program. At Harvard Medical School, I was Director of the Translational Genetics and Bioinformatics Program of the Harvard Catalyst. I am also an Associate Member of the Broad Institute and a Senior Scientist at the Broad’s Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research Most recently, I have become very interested in the epidemiology and biology of human development and currently serve as Science Director of the Science of Health and Development Initiative at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. I also have a strong interest in communicating the excitement of research to a broader audience and recently published a book on human behavior and psychiatric illness entitled The Other Side of Normal (HarperCollins/William Morrow, 2012).
What advice would you give to a current student with similar career interests?
I think there are at least three crucial ingredients to a successful and satisfying research career: 1) Intellectual curiosity – seek out questions and projects that really capture your imagination. That’s the secret to having a career that is endlessly engaging and fun; 2) Methodologic and quantitative skills – having this toolkit will serve you well no matter what area of research or public health you pursue; 3) Collaboration and collegiality – be open to opportunities to collaborate, be generous and kind to your colleagues and mentees. These are the keys to not only a productive career, but to one that is fulfilling and enjoyable.