A physician specializing in infectious diseases, Christopher Gill calls himself “a clinician first,” but students are currently among the beneficiaries of his work on global public health problems. An associate professor of global health at the School of Public Health and a research scientist at BU’s Center for Global Health & Development, Gill treats his students more as colleagues, demanding a high level of dedication and professionalism, even as he engages them with his wit and wide-ranging war stories.
Widely praised as an innovative teacher deeply committed to mentoring, Gill is now honored with the University’s highest teaching accolade, the Metcalf Cup and Prize, to be awarded during the University’s 143rd Commencement this Sunday, May 15. It is the latest in a string of tributes Gill has received as an educator, including last year’s Norman A. Scotch Award for Excellence in Teaching, which is awarded annually to an SPH faculty member.
Gill was a popular member of the SPH faculty from 2002 to 2008, when he left to direct a clinical trials team developing a new meningitis vaccine at Novartis. He returned to SPH in 2011, inspired by his time in industry to create a new course, Clinical Development of a New Medicinal, which simulates the process that a company has to go through when developing a new medicine. That course is just one of several that, as he puts it, teaches problem solving and “intellectual ownership” of informed ideas.
“As a professor,” says Gill, “I feel my goal is to bring the real world into the classroom, present the students with actual problems being faced within the public health community so they can see the trade-offs, the complexities, and the difficulties involved.”
Gill’s research has focused on child survival and includes diarrheal diseases, tuberculosis, pneumococcal and meningococcal disease, and adherence to HIV medications as well as neonatal survival, particularly in Zambia, where he was principal investigator of a major study. He is admittedly obsessed with disease and the battle to ease its global ravages. Those not in the medical field may not grasp “how singularly odd it is to spend your life in hospitals, where all of your discussions are about death and dying and disease. It’s absorbing and inescapable,” says Gill, who earned his medical degree from the University of Massachusetts Medical School and a Master of Science from Tufts University’s Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Studies, and practiced medicine for many years. “That whole mindset never leaves you, and it colors everything that I do. So when I teach a class, topics are clinically focused, based on my interest in mortality and disease prevention and cure.”
From 2011 to 2014, Gill directed SPH’s Pharmaceuticals Program, which aims to educate public health practitioners about the role of pharmaceuticals in public health. He is a member of the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre on Pharmaceutical Policies, which provides research and programs to improve access to essential drugs in developing countries and develops policies that make drugs more affordable and their use more straightforward.
Gill says his development of the new class on clinical development of a medicinal best reflects his commitment to encouraging student engagement. “The entire course is an extended simulation of the process a pharma company must navigate” to bring a potential new vaccine through clinical testing and FDA approval, he says. “The students are required to learn about immunology and microbiology, and how to measure outcomes in vaccine study, and all of this is new and unfamiliar,” he says, adding that the course asks students to “stick their necks out far on this, and take a chance.” What motivates the students is not the grade but the fact that separate groups compete with each other and the class votes on the winner. “They all want to win,” he says. “They all hate not winning.”
In his years at BU, Gill has taught courses in the Kilachand Honors College as well as at SPH, including one on advanced infectious diseases. He is currently the principal investigator for four funded research projects, is prodigiously published in peer-reviewed journals, and serves as a peer reviewer for more than 20 journals.
“On course evaluations, his students state that he brings real-world, practical examples into the classroom and clearly explains the complexities of improving the public’s health,” says Sandro Galea, dean of SPH and Boston University’s Robert A. Knox Professor. “Dr. Gill’s experience working in the pharmaceutical industry inspires him to teach theory, but more importantly, how to apply theory to solve public health problems. Students describe his courses as challenging, practical, innovative, and inspiring, and his enthusiasm, creativity, and dedication in teaching also extend to his research.”
Gill launched one of BU Crowdfunding’s first campaigns for Project SEARCH, which uses ear images to identify individuals simply, accurately, and repeatedly over time and space in low-resource environments. “He mentored several students in the development of Project SEARCH, and the project now serves as an example in his courses,” says Galea.
During his tenure at BU, Gill has designed three courses and contributed to the launching of another six. “Even the courses I’ve inherited I’ve completely redesigned,” says Gill, who adds that most of the courses came not from a long-term vision but more as spur-of-the-moment inspirations—like the one he scribbled on a cocktail napkin in “some dreadfully boring meeting.”
How, Gill often asks himself, do we solve problems in public health? “We live in this fog of ambiguity and bad data, and you still have to make decisions. We have to make a call on what may be lousy information.” And so he teaches his students, such as those in his class on critical analysis and evidence-based writing for journals, how to monitor and how to think. “I select articles with a fatal flaw, usually quite subtle, and an exercise they go through is to see how even sacred cows like The Lancet and JAMA (The Journal of the American Medical Association) are filled with bad information.” Public health is all about allocation of resources,” says Gill. “If your goal is to save lives, my gosh you’ve got to get it right, you’ve got to grapple with ambiguity and still make the decisions.”
Gill praises his colleagues and Dean Galea for making his success possible (“no one teaches in a vacuum”) and notes that teaching is often referred to as a calling and a social obligation. “That’s true,” he says, “but the real reason I like teaching is it’s the most fun thing I can think to do. I can’t imagine not doing it because I love it so much.”
The Metcalf awards date to 1973 and are funded by a gift from the late BU professor and Board of Trustees chairman emeritus Arthur G. B. Metcalf (SED’35, Hon.’74). The Metcalf Cup and Prize winner receives $10,000, the Metcalf Award winners $5,000 each. A University committee selects winners based on nominees’ statements of teaching philosophy, supporting letters from colleagues and students, and classroom observations. The Metcalf honors are presented at Commencement.
Manher Jariwala, a College of Arts & Sciences physics lecturer, and Erin Murphy, a CAS associate professor of English and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, are the recipients of this year’s Metcalf Awards.
More information about Commencement can be found here.