Washington People: Ross Brownson

From the mountains to Missouri, Brownson is a leading expert in chronic disease prevention

Brownson (left), president-elect of the American College of Epidemiology, talks with former student Carlos Mario Arango (MPH ’13). Brownson says that students keep him energized in his work, which involves developing solutions to some of today’s most vexing public health problems. (Credit: Joe Angeles)

In 1986, Ross Brownson, PhD, was an over-educated triathlete and store manager in Fort Collins, Colo., when he got a call from a former Colorado State University professor, who was heading up a division in the Missouri Department of Health.

“He said, ‘Ross, I have a job for you as a cancer epidemiologist if you’re willing to move to Missouri,’ ” Brownson says.

“I had never set foot in Missouri, but I said, ‘OK, I’ll take a chance on this.’ So I packed up and moved to Columbia.”

That Brownson, a native of Grand Junction, Colo., was selling running shoes and bicycles with a doctorate in his pocket wasn’t all that unusual.

“There may be more well-educated people working in retail and restaurants in Colorado than anywhere else in the world,” he says, “because there are great college towns and no one wants to leave the mountains.”

But leave the mountains for the Missouri plains he did, and Brownson, professor in both the Brown School and the School of Medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, has never looked back.

Calm, amiable, unflappable

Brownson spent eight years with the state health department, learning, as he says, how public health works in practice — combining his academic training with real-world policy development.

It was a combination, he says, that prepared him well for the next phase of his career — one that would launch him into becoming one of the country’s leading experts in chronic disease prevention and applied epidemiology.

His vitae has a long list of honors and awards; service experience; editorial boards and positions, including his joining the faculty at Saint Louis University (SLU) in 1994, and then moving to WUSTL in 2008. But his reputation speaks for itself. In September, Brownson will become president of the American College of Epidemiology after serving a one-year term as president-elect.

And it is his demeanor — calm, amiable, unflappable — that, when combined with his experience in both the public sector and academia, makes him uniquely situated to effect real change in public health from his office as co-director of the Prevention Research Center in St. Louis.

Building bridges

The center is distinctive in that it is a joint effort of WUSTL and SLU. Funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), its mission is to develop approaches to prevent chronic disease and improve health in high-risk communities. A large part of the work of Brownson’s teams has focused on understanding and promoting physical activity in the United States and Latin America.

“It’s unique in that we’re ‘co-located,’ ” Brownson says. “Universities are not naturally structured to collaborate effectively, but we’ve found a way of making this work and creating an excellent model for others.

“Both universities get the benefit of this kind of applied-prevention research. In addition to conducting the research and bringing in dollars to our institutions, we have opportunities to train students, partner with practitioners, and work with community members, so that we can ultimately improve people’s lives, which is what we are here to do.”

Brownson, who also is a faculty scholar at WUSTL’s Institute for Public Health, is building bridges everywhere — department to department, center to center, university to university. It’s this multidisciplinary approach to everything he does that endears Brownson to his colleagues — and to everyone he meets.

“Ross is widely known as not only one of the premier scholars in public health, but also one of the nicest human beings around,” says colleague Tim McBride, PhD, professor at the Brown School.

“He is a very generous person who is loyal, warm, and giving, and a great mentor to everyone, especially students and junior faculty,” says McBride.

Evidence-based practice

It was Brownson’s days in the public sector of the state that formed the basis for his research on evidence-based public health.

“I saw first-hand how much of public health practice was not evidence-based, wasn’t making the most effective use of the resources or making decisions based on the latest science,” he says.

Brownson cites an example. “When I started with the health department, we had no programs at all in cancer prevention. We did the estimates once and figured we were spending 3 percent of our public health dollars on chronic disease prevention — yet about 70 percent of the deaths were caused by chronic diseases.”

Brownson says the department didn’t abandon its traditional public health functions, such as maternal and child health and infectious disease control, but instead expanded its focus.

He was appointed as the first director of a new division focusing on chronic disease prevention.

“We raised the visibility (of chronic disease prevention) within the state, the governor’s office, and the legislature — in parallel with efforts at the CDC and the National Cancer Institute,” Brownson says.

“We consolidated existing programs and wrote grants to get new initiatives started.”

Energy and enthusiasm

Brownson says that’s where he realized that what you learn in school doesn’t always become reality when you’re out in practice. But he learned what had to change to makes things happen, and that’s been the basis of his prolific research in academia — at last count 325 articles and 11 books.

He cites two of them as being key texts in the public health arena: 2003’s Evidence-Based Public Health (with a second edition published in 2010) which “puts out the principles of what public health should be doing”; and 2012’s Dissemination and Implementation Research in Health: Translating Science to Practice, which, he says, spells out how to apply the vast evidence we have amassed on numerous topics in public health and medicine.

And what keeps him going – perhaps hearkening back to his student days at Colorado State – are the students themselves.

“I truly believe that being a college professor is the best job in the world,” Brownson says.

“At our research center, we get to hire the cream of the crop,” he says. “The students are unjaded and bring new energy and enthusiasm every year.

“I work with amazing staff and faculty colleagues who are solving the most vexing of public health issues.”