Imagining the Future

Visiting scholar and renowned public health expert Dr. Walter Ricciardi wants to heal the world.

Dr. Walter Ricciardi, the first visiting scholar for Jefferson’s proposed institute for advanced study, doesn’t shy away from the major issues. In particular, the renowned public health expert focuses much of his attention combating the anti-science and anti-vaccine movement sweeping the globe.

“Years ago, the wisdom of experts was untouchable—it was something fully respected,” he says. “Now, there’s a challenge to this expertise, a lack of trust. This is a life-and-death matter. The world was going to a place where some infectious diseases could be eradicated. Now, people are dying from measles, which would be considered unbelievable five years ago.”

Dubious myths like vaccines trigger disease, smoking remains unlinked to cancer and HIV doesn’t cause AIDS have placed the world in a precarious spot, says Dr. Ricciardi, director of the department of public health at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Rome.

Now, Sidney Kimmel Medical College students will be on front lines of squashing rumors and disinformation and tasked with introducing scientific fact to the public in terms they can easily understand, he says.

“This is a challenge of our times,” says Dr. Ricciardi, who received an honorary degree from Jefferson in the spring. “I believe that as students pursue future careers as scientists, doctors and professionals, they should be aware of denialism and be able to recognize and confront it.”

Drs. Ricciardi and Scoles pose outside
Dr. Walter Ricciardi (left) attended classes and presented to the University community during his term as visiting scholar. Jefferson has benefited by his global population health expertise, says Dr. Peter Scoles (right). Photo/Kyle Kielinski

Having Dr. Ricciardi on campus as a visiting scholar has allowed him to share his expertise in global population health, as well as his vast knowledge in problem analysis and the development of practical solutions, says Dr. Peter Scoles, Jefferson’s vice dean for academic program development and co-coordinator of the planned institute’s activities.

A contributor to hundreds of academic papers, Dr. Ricciardi attended Jefferson classes and presented to the University community and nearby colleges during his term. He sees his time here as a way to help create a global population health framework.

“More of our population is suffering from chronic diseases,” explains Dr. Ricciardi, a member of the European Advisory Committee on Health Research for the World Health Organization. “You have people dying because they cannot access care. The idea is for the U.S. and Europe, particularly Università Cattolica and Jefferson, to work together to develop a framework where we can face these challenges in a way that’s effective, efficient, equitable, human and sustainable.”

The framework would use big data in health care to predict and prevent disease, provide early diagnosis and treatment, avoid complications and more, he says. “There may be some pieces of this, but this sort of framework hasn’t been formalized.”

Dr. Ricciardi received an honorary degree from Jefferson in the spring.
Dr. Walter Ricciardi received an honorary degree from Jefferson at Commencement this past spring.

The presence of Dr. Ricciardi as the inaugural visiting scholar of the proposed institute shows Jefferson’s conscious move from meeting present needs to envisioning the future, Dr. Scoles says. He attributes this shift in thinking to the work of University president Dr. Stephen K. Klasko and Dr. Mark L. Tykocinski, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs.

“One can’t do what one can’t imagine,” Dr. Scoles says. “In the past, we’ve said, ‘How can we do what we’re doing right now better?’ Now, we’re saying, ‘What will be necessary and the best for the future?’”

The planned institute will go beyond health care as well, Dr. Scoles says. For example, during the next academic year, he anticipates scholars who specialize in the humanities and foundational science.

“They will be woven by forethought into the curriculum and our academic culture,” Dr. Scoles shares.

Reflecting on his time at Jefferson, Dr. Ricciardi offers a ringing endorsement of the University—and its faculty—to the next visiting scholars.

This is a place where the future is reinvented,” he says. “You can touch it.”

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