A Q&A with Incoming PhD Program Director Diana Bowser

August 24, 2020

Associate Professor Diana Bowser is the newly appointed director of the PhD in Social Policy program, Heller’s flagship academic degree program. Bowser is a health economist who specializes in health financing and health systems strengthening with an emphasis on increasing health outcomes for vulnerable populations. She has an extensive research portfolio and is regularly engaged in multiple simultaneous research projects in countries around the world. Prior to taking on this new role, she directed the MS in Global Health Policy and Management program for five years. Bowser holds a Doctor of Science from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a Master’s in Public Health from Yale University. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Congratulations on this new appointment. Can you tell us a bit about your hopes with this new position?

Diana Bowser: I’m really excited about directing the PhD program. I’ve had a lot of academic positions in the Boston area, including leadership positions at the Heller School. You learn so much on a day-to-day basis in these kinds of jobs, through your interactions with students and faculty. I’ve only been in this role for about four weeks, but I’ve been meeting with different cohorts of PhD students and I can say that they’re the gems of this program. They have a lot of energy and they bring forward great questions on a lot of different policy issues. 

I don’t take jobs because they’re easy. It’s not going to be an easy road ahead, there’s a lot going on in the world around us, including the global pandemic, systemic racism in the U.S., and many other issues of inequality. That filters down to the Heller School and even the PhD program. I’m here to do the hard work and to work with the faculty and students and staff on this PhD program.

What goals do you have for the PhD program?

DB: I directed the MS program in Global Health Policy and Management for a number of years. I was able to take that program and make it more recognizable within Heller, within Brandeis and I would say worldwide. That’s one of my goals for the PhD program—there are so many great pieces of the program, and I want to make it into a more cohesive whole, so that its easier for people to understand what a Heller PhD graduate brings to the table.

What do you see as some of the program’s preexisting strengths?

DB: The students in this program are more involved in these issues than any of us, they’re keen to ask new research questions, gather the data and do the hard work to apply those questions. I’m also excited about working with the faculty. I’ve worked on different projects with them for 10 years now, and they’re totally committed to the students in this program and the courses they teach. 

Another key strength is the core methodological classes that we offer in this program. We’re not a huge program, in terms of size, but have very strong core courses in methods. I want to build on that, intertwine it with some of the societal questions and problems that students are asking.

In my mind, those are the three things you need to build a strong program: great students, committed faculty, and good core methods courses. I think we have a strong base.

Can you tell us a bit about your own research interests?

I’m a health economist, and all of my research focuses on changes to financing and payment within health systems, and how those changes impact access to care for vulnerable populations. My research span is global, and that includes the United States. One U.S.-based project that’s going on right now is related to the opioid epidemic. I’m doing the costing analysis for some groups in Texas and Illinois that are implementing opioid epidemic prevention programs in those states.

One project I just finished was in Haiti; we were looking at health system efficiency and productivity of health care workers who are working on HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. I actually was in Haiti at the beginning of March as COVID was breaking out around the world, and I was instructed to return home as quickly as possible. We finalized the work remotely and just finished that up over the last few weeks.

The final project I have now—which just started, and I’m really excited about it—is looking at access to health care during the COVID outbreak in Colombia, which has a large migrant population from Venezuela. We’re looking at the access to health care services and adherence to social distancing and public health measures during the pandemic for Venezuelan migrants, in comparison to the Colombian population. We’ll also look at access to health care services if they become sick or need services during the COVID outbreak. We’re not allowed to travel there right now, but we have a large team in Colombia that are collecting data on the ground.

What motivates you to continue doing this work?

DB: I have been working public health for a long time, and I love the field of public health, but I realized that it’s hard to implement these important programs because many of the health systems don’t work very well. I became a health economist because I felt like I had to speak the language of financing and payment in order to understand why some of these systems are failing so that we can implement our public health programs more appropriately. The U.S. is a great example of that right now: we’re having a hard time implementing public health in the U.S. because our system is not strong enough.

Financing and payment are important, but they’re only a means to an end. The end is to make sure that individuals have access to health care services, aren’t paying a lot out of pocket for health care, and that they’re healthy and getting the services that they need. I feel like addressing some of these financing and payment issues is one way to solve those issues, so that’s the lens I use. 

How should students and alumni contact you?

DB: I’d like to say just come by my office, but given our new Zoom world I think we’ll have to stick with email. You can email me at dbowser@brandeis.edu. I haven’t had a chance to reach out to older cohorts or the alumni just yet, but Zoom is my new best friend. I’d be delighted to meet you, and Zoom means that now I can meet with anyone around the world. I really want to hear from you, so please do reach out.