Campus News

Ricky Bluthenthal, PhD, and Chanita Hughes Halbert, PhD, take lead in the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences

Carolyn Barnes July 08, 2024
Ricky Bluthenthal, PhD and Chanita Hughes Halbert, PhD

Ricky Bluthenthal, PhD, distinguished professor of population and public health sciences, is interim chair of the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences at Keck School of Medicine of USC, effective July 1, 2024. Bluthenthal also serves as associate dean for social justice, and director of the Justice through Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Well-Being and Social Transformation (JEDI-WeST) program, at the Keck School. He is a health behavior researcher and sociologist focused on the health and well-being of people who use substances and is a long-standing faculty member in the Department.

Bluthenthal is joined by Chanita Hughes Halbert, PhD, professor of population and public health sciences, and Dr. Arthur and Priscilla Ulene Chair in Women’s Cancer, as interim executive vice chair. Hughes Halbert’s research is in health equity, with a focus on addressing cancer health disparities through community engagement. Hughes Halbert has utilized her knowledge in the operational and administrative aspects of research as vice chair for research and brings these skills to her new role.

Bluthenthal’s experience includes research and initiatives in community program effectiveness, harm reduction strategies, community surveillance, epidemiological studies, and interventions. He has a storied history in, and understanding of, social justice, equity, and advocacy.

“The thing about public health that’s so appealing to me is that so many of the things that support population health are also things that would address widespread inequality whatever the source,” says Bluthenthal. “So, it’s possible to imagine a world where you use public health or population health metrics to actually determine how well you’re doing.”

Bluthenthal began his career working with under-resourced, underrepresented minority populations in Oakland, CA, and went on to work on projects impacting those affected by substance use, being unhoused, diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C, and other vulnerable populations. Care and concern for people and quality of life drives his personal mission. “We could be doing so much better if we learned to care, not just for our neighbors, but for everyone in our society,” says Bluthenthal. “We’d all be much better off if people with fewer resources had the things they need to have dignified lives, and so I’m really committed to trying to make that happen.”

Bluthenthal is enthusiastic about the Department – its work, people, and mission – and speaks highly of population and public health sciences faculty, staff and students as he takes on the interim chair role. “The Department’s fantastic, we’ve done so much incredible research and advocacy, and it’s fun to be part of this Department,” he says.

Hughes Halbert agrees, and notes the diversity of expertise available to researchers and students. “In most places, if you want to work with someone that has expertise in genomics and genetics, for example, you have to go outside the department,” she says, listing off a variety of multidisciplinary experts that contribute to the success of her work, all in offices down the hall. “We have all the expertise needed to have an impactful research program across critical, complex issues, and we have it all in the Department. It’s my favorite thing about working here.”

As Bluthenthal discusses the scope of population and public health work, he expresses appreciation of how Department research has impacted his own hometown. “I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, and I remember the smog days. One of the reasons San Gabriel doesn’t have smog days now is because of this Department,” he says, referring to the Children’s Health Study.

Bluthenthal is also quick to give credit for the leadership involvement of faculty, staff and students at the School and University levels. Department representation can be found on presidential working groups and committees, in the dean’s office as associate deans, on staff councils, student governments and groups, and at a slew of research institutes and centers – including the Institute for Addiction Science and Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, where Bluthenthal and Hughes Halbert hold leadership positions. Indeed, Hughes Halbert is leading the launch of the first Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Prevention on the west coast, involving a large, multidisciplinary group of Department faculty within the Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center. “We punch above our weight, and it’s something we can all be proud of,” says Bluthenthal. “We’re part of making USC – and our communities – a better place.”

Hughes Halbert sees a particular strength in the Department’s cell-to-society approach and looks to continue the positive impact of its programs. “Our department is the institutional leader for population and public health research and academic training in these areas, and that’s illustrated by the breadth and depth of our research portfolio and academic programs,” says Hughes Halbert. “There are many opportunities for us to provide critical expertise across population and public health issues relevant to health care delivery and health care outcomes, and I’m excited about the Department serving as that nexus at USC and beyond.”

As the Department embarks on a new chapter, Bluthenthal is eager to get to know more folks beyond his home division, the Division of Health Behavior Research, and hopes to invite connection and open-minded discussion during his tenure.

“People are very smart, and they have interesting things to say, and I’d like to create a forum where people feel like they can share about the things that matter to them,” says Bluthenthal. “I’m looking forward to getting to know everyone better and providing us with leadership, along with Chanita Hughes Halbert, that will position the Department for continued outstanding instruction in public health and innovative population health discoveries.”