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Doctoral funding supports enduring public health leadership

Youssef Farag, PhD '18, MPH '13, prioritized quality over speed in completing his PhD, focusing on academic and service opportunities, which set him up for an amazing career. 

Youssef Farag was laser-focused on one thing: getting his PhD in epidemiology as quickly as possible. But his adviser, Eliseo Guallar, MD, DrPH, MPH, had other ideas. “Your success here is not tied to how fast you finish the doctoral program,” Farag remembers Guallar telling him. “It’s about what else you do during this time that will make you successful.”

Farag, MD, PhD ’18, MPH ’13, an accomplished physician with a medical degree from Mansoura University in Egypt and a postdoctoral fellowship from Harvard University, was astounded. “Okay, enlighten me,” he replied.

Guallar insisted that Farag avail himself of all the School had to offer by engaging with faculty inside and outside of his program, investigating the wide-ranging slate of programs and seminars, and working with other students. Farag should prepare broadly and deeply, Guallar said, in order to become a leader in his field of methodological epidemiology. Each opportunity he chose should build his CV in a way that would distinguish himself from his peers.   

Farag decided to take Guallar’s advice even as he questioned it. Throughout his doctoral program, he tutored other students, worked as a teaching assistant for over 30 classes, mentored dozens of MPH students, and served in the student government. A natural advocate for public health, he spoke at MPH orientations for international students and traveled regularly to the University’s Homewood campus to meet with pre-med students. Unwittingly, Farag became living proof of Guallar’s theory—the more he did, the more he learned, paradoxically completing his PhD in three years, well ahead of the typical five-year stint.

Headshot of Youssef Farag, MD, PhD '18, MPH '13

Farag, MD, PhD ’18, MPH ’13, is an accomplished physician with degrees from Mansoura University in Egypt and Harvard University, appreciated the doctoral support he received while pursuing his PhD in methodological epidemiology.

Today, Farag’s career is one PhD students dream about, with dual tracks in industry and academia. Previously medical director of clinical development at Akebia Therapeutics Inc., where he led the clinical development program of an investigational drug for anemia associated with chronic kidney disease, he is now the senior medical director of translational and clinical development at biotech firm Goldfinch Bio, Inc. And he just published two papers in the New England Journal of Medicine (both covered clinical trials that used the 2019 Nobel-winning hypoxia-sensing pathway work of JHU School of Medicine Professor Gregg Semenza, MD, PhD.)

One of Farag’s true pleasures is turning students on to epidemiology and statistics, and he enjoys a mosaic of roles that bridge teaching students and their instructors. At the Bloomberg School, he is an associate faculty member for the Department of Epidemiology and serves as a career mentor. Farther afield, he assists with Harvard Medical School’s collaborative effort with Egypt’s Ministry of Health, which seeks to train 7,000 Egyptian doctors in clinical research methods and medical education pedagogy over the next four years.

Farag could not have embraced Guallar’s “make the most of it” approach without the financial support of doctoral scholarships and other funding. In addition to receiving the Samet Fellowship and the Alexander Langmuir Award Fellowship, Epidemiology chair David Celentano, ScD ’77, MHS ’75, and others at the School helped him identify research grants and teaching assistant positions.

“Having the financial freedom to pursue academic and service opportunities significantly contributed to my professional maturity and scientific thinking. It is beyond believable,” says Youssef.  And no doubt contributed to a successful defense of his thesis in epidemiological methods and study designs, setting the groundwork for his wide-ranging expertise in the subject. Today, Farag's research prioritizes generating epidemiologic data on cardio-metabolic diseases for developing countries with poor research infrastructure.

Certainly doctoral support is mutually beneficial to both student and institution because doctoral students are critical to the School’s mission of creating public health knowledge. In fact, it was Farag's deep knowledge of methods that led Celentano and Moyses Szklo, MD, DrPH ’74, to recruit Farag as third author for the completely revised seventh edition of Gordis Epidemiology, the field’s essential textbook. Celentano adds that Farag's teaching contributions extend beyond the School’s campus. In 2016, Farag traveled to Dubai to teach epidemiological methods to Afghani professors at Kandahar University as they prepared to help rebuild their country’s public health system. “Not only is he a hard worker,” Celentano remarks, “but he is also a prince and a scholar.” 

Farag says he believes deeply in Louis Pasteur’s famous statement “chance favors only the prepared mind” because the preparation he received at the Bloomberg School has opened so many doors for him. His experiences in Baltimore have proven essential to his personal and professional enrichment as well as his scientific thinking. Steady financial support enabled him to leverage all the opportunities that developed his ability to make connections among people, subjects, and methodologies. 

In fact, his first piece of advice to new doctoral students today is the same as Guallar’s from years ago: Slow down and make every experience count.

Suzanne Flinchbaugh is a writer in the Office of External Affairs at the Bloomberg School. For more information about making a gift to support doctoral education or to the Department of Epidemiology, please contact Quentin Davis, Associate Director of Development at qdavis6@jhu.edu.