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Putting students first, public health teacher instructs, mentors

By Patrick Adams | Public Health Magazine | May 20, 2013

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Through his work in the classroom and the field, noted teacher Juan Leon (middle left), works to prevent parasitic and enteric viral diseases among vulnerable populations in the Americas. He is shown here surrounded by children in Bolivia.
When he arrived at Rollins in 2004 as a postdoctoral fellow, assistant professor of global health Juan Leon was a freshly minted immunologist with degrees from Dartmouth and Northwestern, a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship from the Dana-Irvington Foundation, and a bright future in research.

By his own admission, however, he was not a good teacher.

"I'd tried it in the past, and I thought, ‘It's just not for me,' " he says. "The only way to get better, I decided, was to learn from faculty mentors like Christine Moe, Stan Foster, and David Kleinbaum, attend workshops, and ask the students directly. My past and current departmental chairs, Reynaldo Martorell and Carlos del Rio, were important in my growth."

That strategy seems to have worked. Last fall, the Association of Schools of Public Health (ASPH) and the pharmaceutical company Pfizer bestowed on Leon their 2012 Early Career in Public Health Teaching Award in recognition of his teaching excellence.

In his decade at Emory, Leon has received numerous awards and recognitions, including the Outstanding Achievement and Mentoring by an Early Career State Life Scientist Award from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology and two teaching awards from Emory. He is the author of 25 peer-reviewed publications and five book chapters, and his work, which focuses on interventions to prevent parasitic and enteric viral diseases in vulnerable populations in the Americas, spans a range of interests.

For all of Leon's professional success, his passion for "helping people reach their potential," as he puts it, has made him a favorite among students and a standout among fellow faculty members. "I started working one-on-one with some students, advising them on their theses and helping them chart out their career goals, and I realized I really enjoyed it," he says. "I liked helping them figure out their futures."

Like any young faculty member, Leon was under pressure to publish, and every minute he spent advising his students was a minute he might have spent writing a paper or applying for a grant. He wanted to be available to everyone, but there was always so much to do.

"So I thought about how I could integrate the two activities," he says. "And I said, ‘OK, I will make sure that every thesis I advise directly leads to a published paper.' It might not happen by the end of the year or even the next year, but it will, eventually, lead to a published article." While that meant he would have to be more selective about which students he took on—applicants undergo a rigorous interview process—"I knew that if our goals aligned, both of us would benefit from the relationship."

The same went for his student research assistants. "One great thing about the RSPH is the Rollins Earn and Learn (REAL) program," he says. By subsidizing a portion of their salaries, REAL allows MPH and MSPH students to support their studies with applied public health experiences in government agencies, Atlanta-area nonprofits, and Emory-affiliated programs. Leon, for one, has taken full advantage of that fact in hiring students with an eye toward amplifying his own output. "I thought very carefully about their level of professional development," he says, "and then I formed a small program, so they could get everything they want out of the experience."

"He's really invested in his students' professional development," says Michael Garber, a second-year epidemiology student and leader of the Leon Research Group's rotavirus and nutrition team in Bolivia.

For Garber, Leon is nothing less than a life coach. "For all of his students, he holds an annual career planning meeting where he gets you to think about what you want out of life and how you're going to get it," he says.

His results speak for themselves: Since joining the faculty in 2008, Leon has mentored more than 70 undergraduate and graduate students, many of whom have gone on to produce award-winning research, lead public health teams, present papers at national and international conferences, and co-author peer-reviewed publications.

"Whenever we have a big decision to make, my team members and I have this kind of joke," says Garber. "You know WWJD—what would Jesus do? Well, for us, it's what would Juan do?"