Talk about pressure!
When Andrea Gielen won the national American Public Health Award last fall, she was not only honored for contributions she had made to the field but, by the award’s terms, is now expected to come up with a second act.
The professor and director of Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy, Bloomberg School of Public Health, believes the award was based on work her group has done to move evidence-based injury prevention research into practice. As examples, she cites evaluating the impact of Howard County’s bicycle helmet law (the very first such in the country when it went into effect in 1990) and creating model child safety resource centers in hospitals and community settings.
It was originally another child safety issue — Maryland’s car restraint program — that put Gielen, now 61, on the career path she has followed to this day.
Her first job in the early 1980s, fresh out of Johns Hopkins with a master’s degree in public health, was with the state health department, which had been offered “an amazing opportunity” — funding from the Department of Transportation for a child passenger safety program.
“We were just learning the risks for kids in cars; the leading cause of death for them was car crashes,” she recalls.
As a member of Project KISS (Kids in Safety Seats), she produced said child passenger safety program using research from the very Injury Center of Hopkins she has directed since 2005. The result was Maryland’s child restraint law, one example of public health achievements across the nation.
Then it was back to Hopkins for a doctorate in the field.
“I love implementation but wanted to do more research and evaluation. I like to look at a problem, get to understand it, develop solutions and test them out. The center is a great environment to do that,” Gielen says.
“People don’t understand academics,” she says. “We don’t all just read and write. I work with health departments and hospitals to identify issues, gather data, try things out and evaluate solutions. It’s applied.”
While areas of investigation are often selected because of available financial backing (from sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, Department of Justice, and auto and health insurance companies), it’s childhood injury — still the leading cause of death for children — that tops Gielen’s personal list of concerns.
“We have the power to virtually eliminate these deaths because we know a lot about what works to protect kids (e.g., bicycle helmets, four-sided pool fencing, graduated driver’s licensing policies, etc.). The problem is that we aren’t universally implementing what we know works. That’s the challenge for the future,” the longtime Ellicott City resident contends.
Public health, which deals with prevention of problems (as opposed to medicine, which treats them), is multidisciplinary, broad and complex. And so is the category of injury.
“Injury,” she says, “parallels cancer; there are many kinds — motor vehicle issues, prescription drugs, bullying, domestic violence, fires and so on — which need many approaches.”
But her eclectic team of experts (25 faculty members including a lawyer, epidemiologist, behavioral scientists, economist, engineers and a policy researcher) is equipped to take on the challenges. One of the center’s main priorities, she says, is serving as a resource for decision makers such as those in the state legislature, which in recent years dealt with public health topics from cellphones to crib bumpers.
Gielen herself focuses more nationally, citing as one of the field’s biggest achievements the plummeting death rate in motor vehicle collisions due to much lower rates of drunken driving, even as the amount of driving has increased.
Besides the satisfaction of such successes, she says, her students also are a great source of job satisfaction.
“What brings us all together is a passion for injury and violence protection,” says Gielen, a member of Hopkins’ faculty since 1990. “It is so energizing for me to teach them.”
The feeling is mutual. Vanya Jones, who has known Gielen as employer, adviser, mentor, good friend and now colleague, lauds her “mix of brilliance and humanity.” Jones describes Gielen as a teacher who nurtures and encourages, with command of the material and the “ability to ‘unpack’ the thinking of someone who doesn’t understand, while keeping the attention of 95 others.”
On the home front, Gielen and her husband, Price, take pride in the accomplishments of their two grown sons, Ryan, 34, and Matthew, 30, who work in the film industry in Los Angeles. Although her sons encourage their parents to join them out West, Gielen says that won’t happen anytime soon.