Young leader making public health connections

At 40, Western alumnus Dr. Gabriel Leung heads of the School pf Public Health at the University of Hong Kong (UHK), where he has been a tenured professor since age 34.

After graduating from Western with his MD in 1996, he went on to earn a masters of public health from Harvard University and an MD from UHK, where he joined the faculty as a 27-year-old professor. He has established and directed the school’s Infectious Disease Epidemiology Group since the 2003 SARS epidemic.

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LEUNG

In 2008, Leung took a four-year leave of absence to serve as Hong Kong’s first Under Secretary for Food and Health and fifth director of the chief executive’s office. Six months ago, Leung returned to UHK, where he assisted with the merger of the Department of Community Medicine and the School of Public Health.

Leung, who won Western’s Alumni Award of Merit-Asia in 2007, has hopes of reconnecting with Western by establishing collaboration between his public health program with Western’s soon-to-arrive School of Public Health.

Western News reporter Paul Mayne spoke with Leung about his time at Western and the future of public health.

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Western News: You spent the majority of the early 1990s here at Western. What do you recall from your time in London?

Gabriel Leung: I still remember the first day I arrived at Saugeen-Matiland. I stayed there for three years. It was then the largest mixed residence in North America. Not sure if it still is.

Those were the days of ‘The Zoo.’ That is no longer, but I’m wondering how a medical student got any work done at that time?

Oh, it’s lost its edge? (Laughing.) I didn’t have much trouble. It was a very good social and supportive environment. Contrary to popular belief, people actually do study and get some sleep – despite the frequent fire alarms, which was a bit inconvenient when the medical school exam schedule was different that the rest of the university.

At Western, I started majoring in Chemistry and minoring in Music. It was through the Scholar’s Elective program, which was new at the time, where you could mix and match and not be bound by traditional disciplinary boundaries. That was a lot of fun. I remember doing most of my studying on scientific subjects in the Music Building. All in all, it was a very good experience.

In 2008, you left academia to take on a new role in government. Now, you have returned to academia. Was the plan always to return?

I had been at the university for 10 years when the government came calling. I told them right from the start I would be doing only one full-term (four years) of government, so here I am back again. I actually never left; I just took a leave of absence. … It feels like being home.

I think the government experience has been exceptionally enriching and helped me think from a broader angle about some of the critical public health questions that face not just Hong Kong, but the world today. It’s been an absolute synergy in terms of that experience and what I do now back at the university.

I think it gives you real-life perspective into vexed policy questions which, when viewed from a scientific viewpoint, gives you a lot more insight into the sorts of questions one should be asking.

As the Department of Community Medicine joins the School of Public Health at UHK, what are you hoping to see come from the school in regards to its teaching and research surrounding public health?

I look forward to consolidating our strengths within a new vision for the future. We will continue to lead the country in what we have always done quite well – infectious diseases, in particular those with major global health significance such as influenza, hand-food-and-mouth disease and HPV, and non-communicable diseases.

We see fairly different patterns of these chronic diseases in Hong Kong, China and Asia, as compared to the West. These epidemiological differences, we believe, point to underlying gaps in the scientific mechanisms of disease causation, or pathology. From an epidemiological viewpoint, we see and celebrate these differences and exploit them to draw out new scientific insights as far as fundamental biological pathways, which would ultimately benefit global health.

Also, don’t forget our work in health systems, economics and policy. We appreciate health reform does not take place in a vacuum, but in individual countries. We can only improve by learning from what happens through each other’s experiences. So this is kind of experimental learning through a systematic science of comparative health systems.

And from my previous conversations with your president (Amit Chakma) at Western, we very much hope to work with Western’s new School of Public Health (slated to begin in September) and try and build bridges.

Do you feel the pressure of high expectations?

I have always been very excited about returning to the university. Now that I’ve been back for six months and putting into action some of these plans – with some already bearing fruit – is enormously satisfying. This is what gives us all the collective drive to continue to pursue our vision. Ultimately, it’s really when you see your work resulting in policies that protect and improves health for whole populations, not just within Hong Kong, but well beyond our borders, and you’re producing graduates who become leaders in the field; that’s what makes it all worthwhile.

Your education has taken you all over – Hong Kong, Canada, the United States and Great Britain. Has having these global experiences, along with the formal education you received, shaped who you are and what you hope to bring to your new position?

I really think the world is a global village, and this is truer than ever in this day and age. Not only because we are so interdependent on each other, but also because of the means of communication. I don’t think anybody would dispute that.

The challenge for us all, including in academia, is how to leverage on this new ongoing development – which is only going to get more intense – to give the best student experience and also to make sure we leverage on this globalization to the best of our advantage in our research endeavours. Hong Kong has survived and thrived on being exactly that – a free port of what used to be goods and then, laterally, services, and throughout all that time, a free port of ideas and people. I very much look forward to working together with colleagues at Western, under the president’s leadership, to find commonalities and parallels.