Over 40 Years of Research and Mentoring Across the Globe: Dennis Ross-Degnan
In February 2021, Dennis Ross-Degnan’s career of global research and teaching contributions was the catalyst for being awarded the William Silen Lifetime Achievement in Mentoring Award. Established in 1997, the award is bestowed by Harvard Medical School’s Office for Diversity, Inclusion & Community Partnership. The award honors the lifetime commitment that its namesake made to mentoring students, residents, and faculty. Dr. Ross-Degnan is the second Institute faculty member to receive this mark of distinction.
Over the past 40+ years, Dr. Ross-Degnan has logged a curriculum vitae of equal page length, filled with personal and professional achievements across the world. But if you ask him, the building of an impressive CV was never the end goal. Dr. Ross-Degnan credits lessons learned from his Jesuit high school (Regis High School) and college (Boston College) education for influencing his career trajectory. “The primary message is to live in the world, to do something meaningful,” he notes. “That’s what I wanted to do with my life: leave something meaningful behind.”
A global- and family-focused career
Dr. Ross-Degnan’s first professional position was not in research, but as a childcare worker working with emotionally disturbed adolescent males. There, he says, he learned how to become a mentor. “It required understanding that other peoples’ perceptions of life are very different than your own. In order to relate to people, you have to relate to their vision of the world.” The benefits of this valuable experience were twofold: he met his wife, Leslie, a teacher in the program; and he soon began his career in international and domestic medicines research.
Blending family and professional life, Dr. Ross-Degnan lived with his family in Kenya, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia, and traveled even more extensively to work with colleagues in many countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. His primary focus became evaluating evidence-based strategies for improving use of medicines, often in collaboration with members of the International Network for Rational Use of Drugs (INRUD), an interdisciplinary research network he co-founded in 1990 that has served as a global focal point for improving use of medicines in low and middle income countries (LMICs). For over 30 years, he has collaborated with the World Health Organization (WHO) on global issues in pharmaceutical policy.
Dr. Ross-Degnan joined the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute’s Department of Population Medicine (then known as the Department of Ambulatory Care and Prevention) in 1993 as a faculty member in the Department’s first research division, the Drug Policy Research Group (known today as the Division of Health Insurance and Policy Research). While maintaining his international work, he was also able to craft a domestic research portfolio evaluating health systems initiatives to improve quality and outcomes of care. This work has had substantial impacts on worldwide healthcare policies in both the public and private sectors. In 2000, Dr. Ross-Degnan also took on the role of Director of Research for the Department, overseeing the growth of its research portfolio, which went from $10 million in 2000 to nearly $60 million in 2019.
In order to relate to people, you have to relate to their vision of the world.
- Dennis Ross Degnan, ScD
Celebrating the new global way: via Zoom
Dr. Ross-Degnan was honored by Harvard Medical School during a virtual award ceremony in June. In July, another virtual celebration brought together over 150 colleagues across over 20 countries and multiple time zones.
The ceremony offered a personal peek behind the curtain of Dr. Ross-Degnan’s career, with colleagues and former mentees offering anecdotes about his impact. His wife, Leslie, and son, Ryland, also weighed in on what the honor meant for their family. “Mentoring was his favorite part of his work. Kenya was our beginning. We traveled the world as a family,” Leslie recalled. Ryland recognized his father as his first mentor, shaping his view of the world and inspiring him to become a “world citizen”.
Colleague Jonathan Quick described him as a visionary, having the foresight to see that the training they were providing across the world was not just teaching, but a means of creating a new generation of people working toward rational medicines use. This vision united rigorous research skills, behavior change psychology, and policy change—and also helped spawn both INRUD and a new multidisciplinary field of research.
Longtime colleague, friend, and research partner Stephen Soumerai fondly recounted a grant-writing experience with Dr. Ross-Degnan during a trip to Bali when Dr. Ross-Degnan was living in Indonesia, resulting in an award that helped fund opportunities for mentees in the Fellowship in Health Policy and Insurance Research (then called the Fellowship in Pharmaceutical Policy). In summary, he said, “Your happiest moments have always been mentoring. You’ve told me that many times. This award is a reflection of your unique skills and personality that define an outstanding mentor. Your influence knows no bounds.”
While the pandemic has put a temporary pause on international travel, one of his favorite aspects of his career, Dr. Ross-Degnan noted that he is grateful for the opportunity to connect using technology like Zoom. Humbled by the attention but invigorated by connecting at one time with so many who impacted his career, Dr. Ross-Degnan shared the spotlight with everyone on the video chat: “Collectively, I think we all deserve this, after a remarkable 40 years together.”
Congratulations, Dr. Ross-Degnan, for your commitment to and recognition for a career marked by inspiring, supporting, and catalyzing the professional and personal development of generations of colleagues!
A Lifetime of Mentoring: A Snapshot
- Has mentored >100 PhD students or post-doctoral fellows from 22 countries
- Received the Klaus Peter International Teaching Award from HMS for distinction in international medical education and mentoring (2005)
- Received the A. Clifford Barger Excellence in Mentoring Award from HMS (2008-2009)