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Devan Hawkins MCPHS Public Health instructor.

Devan Hawkins And The Surprising Data Of Death: A New MCPHS Instructor Explores The World Of Epidemiology

  • Devan Hawkins recently joined the School of Arts and Sciences faculty at Massachusetts College of Pharamcy and Health Sciences (MCPHS) as an instructor in Public Health. While working with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Hawkins developed a deep interest in the data that he gleaned from an unexpected and somewhat morbid source: death certificates. We sat down with Hawkins to learn more.

    Welcome to MCPHS, Instructor Hawkins! Tell us about your background. From where are you coming to MCPHS, either academically or in terms of your career?

    I first became interested in public health as a biology undergrad at UMass-Lowell. I thought I wanted to become a lab researcher until I experienced working behind a bench and realized that I didn’t enjoy that kind of work! I had a friend in public health who introduced me to the field. Then I saw an opportunity to conduct health research without working behind a bench. I earned my master’s degree from the UMass Lowell Department of Public Health. The curriculum, which included an occupational health component, led me after graduation to work with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health collecting occupational health data about injuries, mortality on the job, and other significant events.

    You are joining the school of Arts and Sciences as an instructor of Public Health. What courses will you be teaching?

    I’ll be teaching three courses in the fall.

    The first course will be Occupational Health. The curriculum deals with how we understand the impact of work on our lives. For a long time, this topic has been treated separately from public health. But we increasingly understand that occupational health is public health. We spend about a third of our week at work, assuming one full-time job. This has a big impact on our health. We study chemical, physical, and even psychosocial exposure, which is my particular interest, as so many people switch from more physically hazardous manufacturing jobs to those in the service or IT industries.

    The second course that I’ll teach is Public Health Research Methods, including methods applicable to all kinds of fields. We’ll cover how to develop research topics, narrow down questions, study design, data collection, and analysis. It’s very hands-on; my students will study these topics as they are designing and carrying out their own research studies.

    My third course will be Introduction to Gerontology, a course that focuses on the impact of aging on society. This topic is especially relevant to public health as the Baby Boomers age. The mean age is rising and the average number of children that people are having is dropping. These factors will have a tremendous effect on society at large.

    Within public health, what research question really excites you? What keeps you up at night?

    Since I’m working on my doctorate, I’d have to say my dissertation proposal has captured my fascination. Since 1999, the mortality rate among middle-aged white people has plateaued; in fact, there’s some evidence that it may even have increased. However, among other ethnic groups of comparable age and income level, mortality rates have been steadily decreasing. It’s important to note that the mortality rate is different from absolute mortality—across the board, African Americans have higher absolute mortality than white Americans. Within my research, I am focusing on mortality rate, which refers to the percentage yielded when you divide the number of deaths over a given time period by the size of the population that you are studying. For middle-aged white Americans, that rate has plateaued, or may even been rising.

    A few years ago, a now-famous research paper pointed out that most of this trend is attributable to three factors: opioid use, suicide, and alcohol abuse. Together, these three causes of death are colloquially termed “deaths of despair.” My goal is to use the information contained on the death certificates of every Massachusetts citizen who died of these three causes since 1999 to discover how occupational factors might have contributed to those deaths. For instance do high occupational injury rates correlate with these types of deaths? There’s another sub-question: during the period of time in which we’ve seen the rate of “deaths of despair” rise, a marked decline has occurred in the number of traditional jobs in which you have a set schedule and routine tasks. Instead, less routine jobs, like those in the gig economy have arisen. These employees have a lot of uncertainty and flux in their hours, rates of pay, etc. Whether the changing nature of work has affected mortality rates is an area of particular interest to me.

    What would you like new students at MCPHS to know about public health, especially if they have never taken a course in the field?

    Public health is about prevention. We are trying to prevent people from getting sick or injured, or dying, in the first place. Medicine is, generally speaking, about treating an illness or injury after it has already occurred. Of course, there is preventative medicine. There is no clear dividing line, and I certainly don’t wish to make medicine sound secondary. To give people an understanding of the role that public health plays, we use the famous example of Dr. John Snow’s removal of the Broad Street pump handle and the water pump from service in 1854. This action ended a terrible outbreak of water-borne cholera. I also like to point out that public health measures were responsible for a huge reduction in the number of polio cases, even before the invention of the first vaccine.

    What do you look forward to the most about teaching?

    Introducing new concepts to students really excites me. I remember how exciting it was to realize that you can learn so much about a population’s health just by counting. Epidemiology is, in a very real way, a science built around counting and putting numbers together in interesting and creative ways. Also, I’m really looking forward to helping students develop research projects, as well as involving them with my research.

    Finally, is there a public health story in the news that has been fascinating you recently?

    Yes—it’s a story that just recently came out in the Boston Globe which is rooted in data I handled as part of my job at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. We were working on correlating opioid deaths to industry and occupation, and we found huge disparities in certain groups. For example, we found that construction workers and commercial fishermen were among the occupations suffering the highest mortality rates due to opioids.

    The School of Arts and Sciences at MCPHS integrates liberal arts and sciences with professional studies, including a Bachelor of Science in Public Health program designed to jump-start the healthcare careers of future leaders.