A man with many titles, K. "Vish" Viswanath (M.A., '86; Ph.D., '90) is a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, a faculty member with the Center for Community-Based Research at Harvard's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and faculty director of the health communication core at the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center (DF/HCC). At the DF/HCC, he also holds roles as the leader of the Cancer Risk and Disparities program and founding director of the DF/HCC's Enhancing Communications for Health Outcomes Laboratory. In addition, he continues to lead important health communication research and mentor the next generation of health communication scholars.
How did you become interested in health communication?
I worked on research for a satellite television program in rural India, where you cannot ignore poverty. It's just the reality. I was trying to understand how communications can really help in addressing poverty and what role it plays in development and social change. When I pursued graduate school, I came to Murphy Hall and ran into some of the foremost thinkers on the subject, which really set me on my path.
Who did you study with at SJMC? How did they affect your career?
My adviser for my master's thesis was professor Roy Carter. Then, for my Ph.D., I worked with professor Phil Tichenor. Anybody who knows Prof. Tichenor knows that he's possibly one of the most rigorous thinkers in the field -- his work on knowledge and power is seminal. I also really benefited from working with a group of faculty, including professors Gillmor, Wackman, Schwartz, Dicken-Garcia and Lee. They encouraged me to ask the big questions. Drs. Jerry Kline and John Finnegan helped me orient to health communication research.
How has the field of health communication changed since you were in school?
When I was in graduate school, health communication was not a very prominent field. But now, more than 20 years later, it has become one of the most active and visible areas in communication. It's grown due to an increasing recognition in our society that prevention can be a cure to many health ailments and that investing in health is tied to social and economic outcomes. There is a growing recognition that one of the most significant ways to promote health is through communication.
What makes health communication so complex?
The first problem is the substantial number of people who can't even access the information. But then if you do have access, how do you navigate the complexity? Socioeconomic status plays a large role. But even if you understand the information, how do you act on it? For a lot of people, they may know that they should do something, but they may not have the resources. For example, you may know that you should eat fruits and vegetables, but what if you cannot afford it? It's a multifaceted problem. Plus, you see challenges at group levels as well. Some groups can disseminate information while others cannot; for example, the funding of anti-tobacco movements versus tobacco companies. It's a bit of an irony that in this "Information Age" some people and groups are being left behind when it comes to information access and use.
Why is collaboration so necessary in your field?
We now know that major problems in individual and population health are complex in origin and require an understanding from a multi-disciplinary perspective. In fact, the causal origins are at the intersection of many factors and social statuses. Solutions too require multi-disciplinary approaches and we inevitably have to engage experts from many fields, such as communication, public health, epidemiology and computer science, among others. Working at the intersection of several disciplines helps you understand these problems and develop solutions. Collaboration is inevitable.
What is the value in working with the next generation of scholars?
One of the greatest things that SJMC did for me was it instilled the importance of mentoring. From the professors to my classmates, I worked with some remarkable scholars who I consider my mentors. It's only because of my mentors, who went out of their way to groom me and take that extra step, that I'm where I am today. So I know the value of mentoring and feel that I should give back. But it's selfish too, because my students, fellows and staff enrich me intellectually. They participate in the process and together we work through intellectual puzzles. They are an investment in the future. We are producing some of the best minds who are focusing on addressing major public health issues. -Sarah Howard