Human health expert Michelle Lampl earns Exemplary Teacher Award

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | May 10, 2018

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Michelle Lampl, director of Emory’s Center for the Study of Human Health, draws praise for her dedication as an educator, her concern for students and colleagues, and her outstanding scholarly contributions. Emory Photo/Video

Many students can point to one class, one moment, one teacher that was truly transformative in their lives.

For Meriah Schoen 14C, an Emory PhD student in nutrition and health sciences at the Rollins School for Public Health, that person is Michelle Lampl, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Anthropology and founder and director of the Center for the Study of Human Health.

Like hundreds of other Emory students, Schoen first met Lampl while taking an undergraduate class in predictive health — coursework that the physician-scientist designed while creating Emory’s human health major, which has drawn national distinction for its innovative interdisciplinary approach.

“Her teaching style was really unique,” recalls Schoen, who earned undergraduate degrees in anthropology and human biology, with a minor in predictive health.

“Every time you left her class — and I know this was also true of my peers — you absolutely continued to think about the conversations that you’d just had. So the material became relevant not only inside the classroom, but outside of it, useful in so many ways,” she says. 

Nick Leonard, a senior majoring in business administration and human health, found that studying with Lampl “absolutely opened the door to my fascination with science and health,” ultimately influencing his decision to apply to medical school.

“When looking at research, she would always challenge us to look closely at the nature of the evidence,” he recalls. “It almost became a buzz-phrase, but it helped us think about where information actually comes from.” 

For her exceptional talents as an educator, her concern for students and colleagues, and her outstanding scholarly contributions, Lampl has earned the 2018 Exemplary Teacher Award, which is supported by the United Methodist Church's General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

Among the university’s top honors, the award (formerly known as the Scholar/Teacher Award) will be presented during Emory Commencement exercises on Monday, May 14.

Understanding human growth

From an early age, Lampl instinctively viewed the world as a scientist. 

An avid reader, she devoured biographies of Louis Pasteur and Madame Marie Curie, eager to understand how everything around her worked, from the discovery of vaccines to why seasons change.

Growing up in Colorado with a mother who was a classically trained pianist, Lampl’s childhood interests engulfed both the arts and sciences. By the age of 12, she decided “what I really loved was science, discovery and research,” she recalls.

In that pursuit, Lampl was eventually drawn to the anthropology department at the University of Pennsylvania, noted for exploring challenging questions through a strong, interdisciplinary lens. After completing her undergraduate work there, she would go on to earn both a PhD in anthropology and an MD. 

Underlying everything was an essential question: What does it mean to be human?

At the time, biomedical anthropology was an emerging field, and it would help develop her interest in the growth and behavioral development of infants and children.

Her first research subject was her landlord’s newborn baby. Carefully measuring the infant over a long weekend, Lampl was stunned to discover that between Friday and Monday the child had grown an entire centimeter.

She chalked it up to methodological error. But nine days later, it happened again, inspiring Lampl to scientifically investigate what parents have long suspected: human growth doesn’t happen in steady, measured sequence, but in spurts. 

Her landmark findings would initiate the new science of “growth spurt biology,” and represent a fundamental paradigm shift in the scientific study of human growth.

Creating a new major

Lampl arrived at Emory’s Department of Anthropology in 1994, drawn by an academic community that ardently supported interdisciplinary scholarship. 

Inspired by work on Emory’s 2005 strategic plan and Predictive Health Initiative, Lampl began to envision the possibilities of an entirely new major that explored the wide-reaching impact of human health through an array of academic perspectives — an interdisciplinary degree intended to capture the imagination surrounding the emerging science of health.

In 2013, the new human health degree became a reality. What began as a major with four students has exploded in popularity. Over the past five years, some 500 Emory students have pursued human health majors or minors. 

“Once you understand health, it’s all around us,” says Lampl, sitting in her office in Emory’s Center for the Study of Human Health, which brings together campus initiatives, programs and projects for the interdisciplinary study of health. 

“There is no question that it’s important,” she says. “What pleases me is how much people have embraced it. What excites me is how much more we can do.”

To date, some 100 educators from across the university have taught in Emory’s undergraduate human health program, including faculty from the schools of medicine, nursing, public health, law, theology and business.

“Her contributions to Emory’s Department of Anthropology and her leadership of the Center for the Study of Human Health have been integral to the strength of those two signature programs at Emory,” says Michael A. Elliott, dean of Emory College of Arts and Sciences, adding that it represents “service of the highest order.” 

But equally important is how Lampl has impacted the lives and scholarship of Emory students. “In addition to her groundbreaking research, Professor Lampl is a top-notch teacher,” says Elliott. “Her ability to engage and inspire students has been a model for many others on this campus.” 

For Emory junior Lamar Greene, recently named a 2018 Harry S. Truman Scholar, taking a predictive health class with Lampl was transformative, directly influencing his decision to major in human health with a concentration in health innovation offered collaboratively through Human Health and Goizueta Business School.

His goal? Working nationally to reduce health care disparities. He credits Lampl with inspiring him to seek ways to improve the national health care system, perhaps through health philanthropy, maybe political action committees. 

“If you want to change the system, you have to understand how to talk about it,” Greene says. “Dr. Lampl works with you, pushing you on the ideas you bring forth, always focusing on how little details can add to the bigger picture.” 

“She’s a true visionary,” he adds.