For Michael Joseph ’94 public health is a mission. The associate professor of epidemiology and vice dean of education at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health is out to improve public health outcomes whenever and wherever possible, particularly for underserved and minority populations. For him, education is the key.

The Brooklyn native wasn’t thinking of public health when he entered Brooklyn College. He was going to be a medical doctor. But once he dug into his pre-med studies, which required much rote memorization, he realized he wanted to do something more hands-on and practical. Joseph picked up the course bulletin and came across the health science concentration. Then he added epidemiology to his coursework and was fascinated with the disease-detective work linking an outcome to a specific health exposure.

A research internship at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn (today SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University) led him to epidemiology when he completed a study examining patterns of delay in the diagnosis and treatment of cervical cancer among Afro-Caribbean women in Brooklyn.

“My epidemiology professor, Gerald Oppenheimer [now emeritus], nominated me for that,” he says, eager to give credit. He does so often, making it clear that none of his accomplishments were done without support. “So many folks poured their time, effort, and expertise into my education. My Guyanese parents didn’t play when it came to me going to college. I had no choice; I was going, and they supported me in that,” Joseph says, chuckling. And there were his mentors.

“Craig Bell at Brooklyn College was the first black professor I ever had. He motivated and inspired me,” says Joseph. “He was so excited when I was accepted to Yale. He took me out to dinner to celebrate. He is the one who showed me that representation matters.”

After graduating with a B.S. in health science from Brooklyn College, Joseph earned a master’s degree in public health at Yale University, and his Ph.D. in epidemiologic science at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. In 2004, he was back at SUNY Downstate, this time as a faculty member. Still connected to Brooklyn College, Joseph became instrumental in attracting the school’s BA-MD undergraduates to Downstate. Every year he gave them exciting lectures on public health and epidemiology, which resulted in a few pursuing the dual MD-MPH degree at Downstate. A recipient  of the Brooklyn College Alumni Association’s 2023 Distinguished Achievement Award, Joseph remains engaged with the college through his work with the Magner Career Center delivering on-campus lectures.

Throughout his academic and professional career, Joseph could not help but notice that he was one of the very few people of color working at the intersection of epidemiology and public health. “There are so many underserved communities where the folks look like me and need significant public health assistance,” he says. “It’s essential for us to build up the next generation of public health professionals, including those of color.”

To this end, Joseph has taught introductory biostatistics in several pathway programs that steer high school and undergraduate students from historically excluded and socially disadvantaged backgrounds into the field of public health. He has done so now for two decades.

“It’s always rewarding when you teach someone who, at first, doesn’t know what public health is all about,” he says. “And then, years down the road, they’re in a school of public health, getting a master’s degree, or they’re in the workforce in some kind of public health-related area of employment. . .” Joseph pauses, and the look of satisfaction on his face grows serious. “There was a big moment in public health when it came to epidemiology during the pandemic,” he says. “So many Black people and other communities of color were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. [At Columbia] we saw a surge in applications from students of color who lost family members and who wanted to dedicate themselves to studying infectious diseases and public health.”

Joseph’s role as an educator has not been confined to teaching only those at home who are new to public health, but also those who have been on the frontlines of healthcare abroad. He had returned to Brooklyn from Michigan and was settling back into life in his hometown and a postdoctoral fellowship at Mount Sinai School of Medicine when he received an email. It was an offer to teach in Zimbabwe. The university there was looking to develop a master’s program in epidemiology.

His answer was an enthusiastic yes.

The plan was to teach short courses in biostatistics, epidemiology, research methods, and statistical computing. His students were full-on medical professionals, some working for the Ministry of Health. “Talk about anxiety and imposter syndrome!” says Joseph, who had just finished his doctoral degree. He was successful, and this opened the door for other international teaching trips in places like South Africa, Estonia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.

“International public health capacity development is something that I’m very fond of, and I am grateful that I have had opportunities to travel abroad and do that,” he says. “Throughout my travels, I have learned there’s a great need and desire internationally to strengthen and deepen epidemiology and biostatistics training for public health professionals interested in conducting research.”

More recently, and closer to home, Joseph has turned his attention to his neighborhood and the Black community there that is being devastated by HIV and AIDS, particularly among heterosexual men. “Yes, it’s still happening today, believe it or not,” he says.

While at Downstate, Joseph and colleagues partnered with the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health, which has a long-standing history of success in designing, implementing, and evaluating health promotion programs in non-traditional venues. “They go into churches, beauty parlors, tattoo parlors, and barber shops with really impactful health education campaigns,” says Joseph, who helped create a program called Barbershop Talk with Brothers. “We’re meeting people where they are.” Then he adds, “You know, my side hustle to get me through college and graduate school was to work as a barber.”

It has been two years since Joseph joined Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. Today, when he looks back on the many successes of his career, one thing is certain. “There’s one thing I do want to say, and I hope it makes it into the article. Nothing that I accomplished—” He pauses again to choose his words carefully. “Let’s put it this way, I wouldn’t be successful had it not been for Brooklyn College.”