Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Alan Balsam

by Kelly Dumke

Alumni Spotlight with Alan Balsam, PhD Class of 1988

When it comes to public health and nutrition, Alan Balsam knows the ropes. From humble beginnings as a restaurant union organizer to public health commissioner for the city of Brookline, MA, Dr. Balsam has come a long way from teenage busboy and is an exemplary member of the Friedman alumni community.

The Road to Friedman

Dr. Balsam’s interest in food, health, and nutrition started young. As an undergraduate at Brandeis University, Balsam worked as a cafeteria cook and organized the university’s first restaurant union. Graduating with a BA in Sociology in 1972, Balsam became a full-time cook and union president at Brandeis and Harvard. With a strong background in the food business and a desire to go further with his education, the nutrition pathway seemed an appropriate route to pursue. In 1981, Balsam received a Masters in Nutrition from Framingham State University.

After his graduation, Balsam’s first job was manager of food and nutritional services for Elder Services for the cities of Somerville and Cambridge. During the seven years Balsam worked for the Somerville/Cambridge Elder Services, Balsam received both his MPH from Boston University in 1983 and then his PhD in food policy and applied nutrition (FPAN) from the Friedman School in 1988.

The Friedman Experience: Internships, Concentration, and Research

Dr. Balsam describes his experience at Friedman as one of luck and innovation. Specifically, Balsam remembers how lucky he was to be able to continue working at Elderly Services for Somerville/Cambridge during his time as a PhD student. Balsam entered Friedman’s FPAN program with his thesis project already set and funding secured through the American Association of Retired People (AARP). His thesis was entitled “The total distribution and determinants of service innovation in elderly nutrition programs.” Balsam explored the adoption of innovative programming in elderly nutrition programs, which traditionally only include “meals on wheels” and congregate meals.

Balsam credits his swift graduation to the fact that he had already designed his project and to his great adviser, Bea Rodgers, whom he describes as a “dreamboat.”

What He’s Up To Now

Dr. Balsam’s first job after finishing his PhD at Friedman, was Director of Elder Health at the Massachusetts Department of Health. Developing the state’s division of elder health, Balsam maintained this post for seven years until leaving in the early ’90s for his current post as Commissioner of Public Health for the city of Brookline, MA.

While a large portion of the his efforts as Commissioner focus on nutrition, especially in schools, other major areas of interest are in environmental health, public health nursing, child, elderly, and community health. Under Balsam’s direction, Brookline schools have implemented and the city was the first municipality in Massachusetts to ban trans fats. Currently the Brookline Department of Public Health is working on the distribution of the H1N1 vaccine. The Brookline Public Health Department building was the first green building in the city of Brookline. The building is designed with rooftop solar panels for electricity; sustainable building materials including cork and bamboo; and high intensity, low energy lighting. In addition to his work as Public Health Commissioner, Dr. Balsam serves as an associate professor of nutrition at Boston University and a guest lecturer at the Friedman School.

Plans for the Future

Dr. Balsam is dedicated to monitoring and improving the health status of the Brookline community. He emphasizes the importance of monitoring and evaluation of the programs implemented. The annual “Healthy Brookline” report evaluates ongoing public health policies implemented within the community. The current Nov ’09 edition spotlights health initiatives directed at Brookline’s 85 and older population. When asked about the effectiveness of public health policies and measures to evaluate them, Balsam states, “If you are doing it right…evaluation is not something you do as a tack-on at the end…it is an integral part of the assessment and implementation process.” Balsam and his team at the Brookline Public Health Department are dedicated to making sure the policies they design and implement truly have an impact on the community’s health.

Advice for Current Students

Balsam encourages students to gain experience, define their true passion, and seek out advisors in their field of interest.

“Try to get as much real-world experience as you can and really hone your people skills… You need to know how to get along and work across disciplines. Other skills you can pickup, but that [people skills] defines success.” If you are interested in talking with Dr. Balsam personally, feel free to contact him at abalsam@brooklinema.gov

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