Yale News

Megan Ranney has been involved in public health before she knew what “public health” was. As a high schooler, she led efforts to prevent substance use disorders and improve access to food for low income and elderly populations.

Now, as the incoming dean of the Yale School of Public Health, Ranney looks to draw on experiences that have taken her across the globe, blending pursuits in public health, emergency medicine and firearm violence reduction to advance health outcomes. She will begin her term at YSPH on July 1. 

“We have the opportunity to set a model for schools of public health across the country, and hopefully, across the globe, around how to think differently about who’s part of the work of public health and the study of public health,” Ranney told the News. “I want us to be the best at research and to have the best students, but the thing that I care most about is that we actually change health outcomes for communities. And to me, that’s the ultimate metric of my deanship.”

Ranney arrives at Yale from Brown University, where she serves as the deputy dean of the Brown University School of Public Health and a professor of behavioral and social sciences and health services. 

Long before that, Ranney began her career at Harvard, where as an undergraduate she examined the link between social determinants and healthcare as a history of science major. Internalizing the maxim that “all medicine is political,” Ranney grew to understand how deeply healthcare is intertwined with social structures — a philosophy that led her to enlist as a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa combating the HIV/AIDS epidemic following graduation.

“I did a lot of work while I was there around gender based violence as a form to prevent the spread of HIV,” Ranney said. “But then at the end of the day, when people did catch the virus, they didn’t want to get diagnosed. They wouldn’t say its name … couldn’t get treated. It was basically a death sentence.”

The experience led Ranney towards a passion for understanding the “underlying structural factors” that determine access to healthcare. On her return to the U.S., Ranney attended medical school at Columbia University and completed her residency in emergency medicine at Brown. 

By the time she was in medical school, Ranney admitted, she wanted to get a degree in public health but was reluctant to pay for it herself. That dilemma, she explained, drives a commitment to financial accessibility as a public health administrator. 

Her decision to pursue clinical practice in emergency medicine, however, soon proved impactful. Ranney explained that she was drawn to the specialty due to its role as the “safety net of our health care system.”

“We were on the front lines,” Ranney said. “It’s really the place where you see public health problems before the rest of society [and] the rest of our country sees [them].”

She recalled observing the increase in opioid overdoses and opioid use disorder prior to the rest of the country, adding that she and her team are also first hand witnesses to domestic violence and to the challenges unhoused people face.

Having obtained her master’s of public health and completed an injury prevention research fellowship at Brown, Ranney still regularly spends time in the emergency room as a clinician, a practice she hopes to continue at Yale on top of her deanship. 

Emergency medicine keeps Ranney’s “feet firmly on the reality of healthcare” and “all the ways in which … society does not promote health.” According to Ranney, the specialty allows her to monitor and detect crises in public health before they reach the rest of society. 

Ranney also sees the emergency room as a locus for equity; according to her, the ER is the only place in the U.S. healthcare system that is open to everyone, regardless of ability to pay. 

“We serve as the bellwether for the problems in the U.S. healthcare system,” Ranney said. “When you look at overcrowding, staffing issues, burnout, [and] issues with payment reform, [emergency medicine is] a harbinger of all of those as well. There are a few places in the healthcare system that see it firsthand as those of us that work in emergency medicine.”

Today, Ranney is widely recognized as an expert on gun violence as a public health crisis. Ranney has served as a co-founder and senior strategic advisor for the American Foundation for Firearm Injury Reduction in Medicine at the Aspen Institute. Locally, she serves on the board of directors for the Non-Violence Institute in Providence, Rhode Island.

The roots of her interest in preventing firearm violence, Ranney explained, are her experiences in emergency medicine. When Ranney entered the field in the mid-2000’s, the federal government had defunded the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health’s firearm injury prevention research, and few researchers had thought of addressing gun violence as a public health emergency. 

According to Ranney, treating victims of gun violence in the emergency room gave her “repeated lived experience” that compelled her research.

“I think there’s a very visceral knowledge of the effects of a bullet on a human body, on the human psyche and on the family and community around them,” Ranney said. “It changes a human, forever, even if they survive that bullet wound.”

Applying the same scientific methodology used to address heart disease or COVID-19, Ranney explained, is essential to reducing harm from firearms. She prides herself on bringing a degree of “scientific rigor” and methodological tools from across her career to the study of firearm harm reduction.

For Maame-Owusua Boateng SPH ’23, Ranney’s hybrid role as a doctor and a public health practitioner provides a model for students interested in combining public health and clinical medicine. Ranney’s combination of the fields creates a “holistic view” on how to address community healthcare and “create trust in communities that have reasons to distrust.”

Similarly, for Lauren Chin SPH ’23, Ranney’s work on addressing gun violence strikes a personal note, giving her optimism about the incoming dean.

“As someone who calls Monterey Park and East Los Angeles home and has witnessed gun violence in New Haven, this public health issue is too familiar to me,” Chin wrote to the News. “But Dr. Ranney understands the nuances between mental illness and gun violence and how to build solutions to gun injury such as community partnerships, something Yale needs to support more of in New Haven.”

Brown School of Public Health’s interim dean Ronald Aubert described Ranney as an “integral part of the Brown community” during her time in Providence. Ranney has been a “tireless advocate” for patients, students and colleagues while impacting “real-world issues facing patients.”

Aubert specifically recalled a moment where Ranney attended a Women in Public Health luncheon organized by Brown’s graduate student council. According to Aubert, her role within the community serves as an inspiration for women in the field.

“The impact that she has … brings a lot of warmth and a lot of encouragement to the women who are envisioning themselves as leaders in public health,” Aubert said. “And that’s a beautiful thing.”

As she arrives at Yale, Ranney has already had a similar impact on YSPH students.

“[Ranney] is one of the reasons I decided to pursue public health when I was exploring such a career field,” Chin wrote to the News. “I was torn between pursuing medicine (EM specifically at the time) or public health, but Dr. Ranney has demonstrated that it is possible to successfully combine work in both fields while simultaneously caring for colleagues.”

Although Ranney accepted the YSPH deanship less than a week before it was officially announced, she hopes to arrive at Yale with two major goals: to get to know YSPH, Yale and the New Haven community, and to successfully transition YSPH to an independent model. 

Ranney expects that it will take her at least a few months to get her bearings at YSPH. She hopes to spend her first few months understanding YSPH’s culture, budgeting and administration before collaborating with the YSM and YSPH leadership to set up a transition structure that is “nimble” and “fiscally responsible.”

Her colleagues at YSPH already look forward to her leadership.

“It’ll be very refreshing to have [Ranney] come here and help us advance what is already, what I like to say, a school of public health that punches way above its weight at this time,” said Howard Forman, professor of radiology and director of the YSPH Health Care Management program. “Hopefully, we can start beefing up, getting bigger, building, getting a building and continuing the evolution that we’ve had over the last decades.”

To do so, Ranney hopes to pursue three “big verticals.” First, she explained, she hopes to foster a sense of inclusivity within the school, to create a “space where all voices are heard” and where “diverse communities are equal partners in the work.”

While Ranney recognizes that tensions exist between Yale and the New Haven community, she aims to approach those conversations with respect and willingness to listen. In addition, Ranney emphasized the importance of “creating a system that walks the walk,” where institutions establish trust by proving themselves to communities. 

“One of my most deeply held, most consistent driving beliefs …  is that nothing that we do matters unless it is done with community members as partners.” Ranney said. “Not doing participatory research, which is deeply important, but true bidirectional partnerships where we have longitudinal trusted relationships with communities”

Secondly, Ranney intends to cultivate an emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurship within the sphere of public health. By collaborating with for-profit, nonprofit and government sectors — and by relying on her experience starting two successful nonprofits — Ranney aspires to “empower” faculty and foster a spirit of innovation.

Ranney’s third “vertical” emphasizes communication. She hopes to ensure that students and faculty are provided with the “tools and training” to serve as a clear resource for “accurate, timely and trusted communication.” In addition, she hopes to build up Yale’s existing research on gun violence prevention, collaborating with YSM and YSL researchers who are exploring the topic and developing research in the discipline.

“We’re at a moment of transformation,” Ranney said. “I think that this is a time where we have the opportunity across the nation and the globe in public health to be leaders in how we think about how we train people in public health, how we study public health and most of all, how we put public health into practice.”

For Melinda Irwin, chair of the search committee for the new YSPH dean, Ranney’s ability as a communicator and firearm injury reduction expert, as well as her excitement about collaborations across the University, distinguished her from over 100 other applicants. As Irwin and Ranney both indicated, Ranney was also a faculty member at the Brown School of Public Health during its separation from the Warren Alpert School of Medicine.

Ranney’s emphasis on underrepresented communities — from her desire to work clinical shifts in the ER to research on population health— demonstrated compassion for her patients and set her apart, according to Irwin. 

“I’m really looking forward to getting to know the New Haven community, the Connecticut community and then potentially getting our students and faculty to have those deep, respectful relationships,” Ranney told the News. “Because that’s at the core of public health — it’s about the public … It’s about creating a space where community partners are deeply heard.”

YSPH was founded in 1915.

Giri Viswanathan was a Science and Technology Editor for the News. Previously, he served as a Photography Editor while covering the School of Public Health for the SciTech Desk. Originally from Pittsburgh, PA, Giri is a junior in Timothy Dwight College majoring in Global Affairs with a certificate in Global Health Studies.
Jessica Kasamoto covers the Yale School of Public Health for the SciTech desk. She is a graduate student in computational biology and bioinformatics.