July 10, 2014

Meet Susan C. Kim, Deputy Director of the O’Neill Institute.

Do you remember when you first realized a career in law was a good fit for you?

I had been telling people I was going to be a lawyer since I was three years old. This makes me suspect that it wasn’t entirely my idea. My parents are first-generation immigrants – very salt of the earth, hardworking, small business owners. Despite not being formally educated on this stuff, they intuited early on that to survive in the United States, you needed to be familiar with the paper chase. They got into a fairly intense lawsuit when I was seven, and I remember having a dictionary on one side of me and stacks of legal documents on the other trying to make sense of what everything meant. So as far back as I can recall, I’ve never considered doing anything else.

When did you identify with the notion of law as a tool for improving public health? Why did that excite you?

The funny thing is that I didn’t know what “public health” was up until about a decade ago. My younger brother was sick throughout most of my time at law school and passed away during my third year. He had cancer, which meant my family spent a lot of time in hospitals. I had spent so much time in that setting, observing that world, I became curious about health systems – hospital systems, in particular. When I did some research into what educational programs were out there on the topic that could complement a legal education, I discovered something called a Masters in Public Health. I applied to a few programs the winter before graduating from law school, and was accepted to the program at the University of Michigan.

My experience at public health school was very different than that of law school. For one thing, the students seemed much more optimistic. I was surprised to discover how broad the topic of public health is; one of the first things we were told is that public health is “everything.” Public health challenges go beyond direct health care delivery and can include climate change, education, poverty and urban planning.

It clicked with me that to implement and deliver effective public health interventions requires smart legal and policy interventions. It’s overly simplistic, but lawyers like to think, read, write, fight, and ultimately win. To be able to overlay that with doing some measure of good is very exciting to me.

What was your path to the O’Neill Institute?

I was fortunate to have Peter Jacobson as my faculty advisor at UMich. Michigan requires their MPH students to undertake an internship after the second year of the program. JD/MPHs exist, but they are a relatively small, but mighty, group. In the summer of 2007, one of Peter’s former advisees happened to be working at Georgetown University, building up something called the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law (under the direction of Larry Gostin), and was taking on research assistants for the summer.

The funny thing is that I had been introduced to Larry through his scholarship. In public health law class, we utilized the “Gostin Framework” to assess public health laws and regulations. I was a bit surprised that Larry still taking on research assistants. I assumed that people with frameworks named after them were entombed in dusty volumes on bookshelves. So I was very excited, and more than a little star struck, for the opportunity to work with Larry.

That summer at the O’Neill Institute really was a revelation. I had gone to public health school thinking that I was going to learn about hospital systems in the US, and I spent my time at O’Neill researching litigation strategies for the global tobacco epidemic, supporting the syllabus for the first Global Health Law class (the Global Health Law LL.M. would launch that fall), and helping compile the research for what would become the second volume of Larry’s Public Health Law book. This all happened against a backdrop of a vibrant new research institute with an extraordinarily bright, kind, funny, and committed team.

I was thrilled when I was offered a fellowship at the institute after graduation from UMich. The rest is history – I’ve been here for almost eight years now!

What are your current projects at the O’Neill Institute?

I’ve had a variety of roles at the institute – currently, I am the Deputy Director, which means I have a mix of administrative and substantive projects. On the research project side, I primarily work on a project working towards the delivery of pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV prevention in specific settings – in particular low-resource contexts. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the project was led by Mark Dybul (who’s currently on leave from Georgetown to serve as leader of the Global Fund). I’ve been part of this project since 2009, which is before the results of the first oral PrEP studies were released, so it’s been fascinating to watch things unfold in real time.

I am also working with our amazing O’Neill team on our Lancet Commission on Global Health and the Law. We’re in the thick of drafting the report, which will be published later this year (2016). I’m very excited to see it come to fruition and proud to be part of it.

Recently, I’ve become especially interested in the interplay between the private sector and public health. I had the opportunity to study for a MBA while at Georgetown, and it was illuminating to learn about how that world works. Generally, in public health, the industry is seen as an adversary in the context of things like tobacco and alcohol control, food and nutrition, and pharmaceuticals, but I don’t think that’s a useful or sustainable framework for public health advocates. I’m currently working on a paper looking at the topic of global drug pricing – less from an advocacy perspective and more as what I hope is an objective assessment of that world.

What excites you most about your work?

How varied it is. I have the privilege of working on a variety of topics in so many different ways with a diversity of enormously talented people. I get to make a contribution and I’m never bored. The O’Neill team – past and present – is a group of smart, big-hearted folk, committed to doing good – it’s really a wonderful place to work. In the past eight years, I’ve never stopped being grateful at the opportunity to work here, which is pretty awesome!

Who inspires you?

My family inspire me. My parents are such generous and hardworking people. For most of my life, they worked 12-16 hour days, 365 days a year. As an adult, I can begin to understand the extraordinary sacrifice and discipline that kind of work ethic takes. It’s profoundly humbling to realize that they worked so hard to ensure that I wouldn’t have to.

And of course, my brother, Chris. He had such a small life, but was such a big person. He was so smart, funny, and brave – it took a lot to endure what he endured. I wouldn’t be doing what I do without his influence on my life and I will always be grateful to him.

Do you have a favorite SCOTUS justice? Why?

I’m sadly not one of those lawyers that have the characteristics of different Supreme Courts committed to memory, but my favorite SCOTUS justice is John Marshall. This is mostly because Marbury v. Madison was the first case we discussed in my Constitutional Law class. I got called on and of course, got the standard of review wrong – it was an embarrassing first day. Chief Justice Marshall’s decision solidified the understanding that the judicial branch is the one branch with the authority to interpret the law. It was the foundation on which the current judicial (and legal) system in the United States was built upon – it’s actually pretty amazing.

What’s the next book on your reading list?

The Martian by Andy Weir. I saw the movie and I have it on good authority that the book is an excellent read!