Leading the way: Livingstone hosts leading health expert

Published 12:10 am Thursday, February 9, 2023

SALISBURY — It’s not every day a White House official visits your campus, but when your STEM department is offering cutting-edge technology, that’s a reason to stop by.

Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, President Joe Biden’s pick to chair the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, visited Livingstone College on Wednesday.

The Health Equity Task Force is part of the government’s efforts to identify and eliminate health and social disparities that cause disproportionately higher rates of exposure, illness, hospitalization and death related to COVID-19.

There was a brief program at Livingstone’s new F. George Shipman Science Annex, where STEM students participate in scientific demonstrations during her tour of the facility.

“I came here today, really open to learning much more about Livingstone and the students here,” Nunez-Smith said. “I’m really inspired and encouraged.”

Part of Nunez-Smith’s visit involved unveiling a Liquid Chromatography Mass Spectrometer, a machine that can separate molecules from complex mixtures. Associate chemistry professor Josette Wilkes explained how it could be used.

“We use this a lot for complex mixtures,” Wilkes said. “The LC allows us to separate the molecules based on weight. Say you have a toxicology report, and you’re trying to figure out what happened to someone when we look at forensics. You have a lot of things going on in your blood. It could separate all those things out by size or polarity.”

Wilkes indicated that having a machine like the LC, commonly used in doctor clinics and hospitals, is a big deal and allows Livingstone students to be prepared for what to expect in the workplace.

Nunez-Smith added, “It is really uncommon to find (equipment like that) at a school of this size, especially in an undergraduate setting. It is clear they are doing cutting-edge science.”

During the program, students were invited to engage with Nunez-Smith in discussions about everything from COVID-19 response to career preparation.

“I found it was encouraging that people wanted to know what they could do as they are charting their future,” Nunez-Smith said. “It’s so critical that folks stay the course. There will always be bumps. This is true for everyone on their academic journey as they work toward their goals. To persist through that is really my message.”

Facing the next generation of professionals are problems that are currently unknown.

“You have to be bold,” Nunez-Smith said. “We have some wicked problems, so we need wicked solutions to figure them out. I want to give everyone permission to think outside the box and think differently. I shared with them that they are preparing themselves for jobs that do not exist today.”

Kansas Mundell is a senior at Livingstone and participated in the discussions and tours on Wednesday.

“It was very interesting for her to come and speak with us today,” Mundell said. “We don’t get a lot of speakers like her.”

Mundell is optimistic that Nunez-Smith’s visit will catalyze continued discourse about tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I feel as though it will impact our campus a lot more and encourage students to come out and get the vaccination and booster shots and make our campus safer,” Mundell said.

The senior knows just how hard the Black community was hit by the coronavirus.

“In the African American community, there are a lot of disparities, and there were a lot of closed-minded people who back in the day were scared to get the vaccine because they thought they were a prototype,” Mundell said. “It’s the future now. We have to open our minds to how we can better help the community and continue to adjust to new viruses as they emerge.”

Several Livingstone school officials also attended the event, calling it an honor to have a leading public health expert on campus.

“Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith is among those highly regarded in her field, coupling her passion for medicine with her commitment to social equity,” said Livingstone President Dr. Anthony J. Davis. “Consistent with the population we serve, Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith’s insight will significantly impact our students and the greater Rowan Salisbury community.”

Nunez-Smith was there when the first COVID-19 patient arrived at Yale New Haven Hospital at the start of the pandemic, and she has since become intricately involved in the nation’s pandemic response. Her work on the Governor’s Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group resulted in her being sought after by the Biden-Harris campaign to serve on their COVID-19 Advisory Board, which led to her chairing the task force.

At Yale University, Nunez-Smith is the inaugural associate dean for Health Equity Research; a C.N.H. Long Professor of Internal Medicine; and founding director of the Equity Research and Innovation Center, among many other titles. She established the Eastern Caribbean Health Outcomes Research Network and was recently elected to the National Academy of Medicine.

She has led many research projects and published numerous papers on the experiences of minority students and faculty.

Having grown up in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Nunez-Smith told the Yale News that people died too often and too young. Her own father had a stroke in his 40s and was left paralyzed. Then, she learned the term “underserved community,” marginalized by place and race.