David Simmons named Galen Health Fellows faculty principal

New community offers live, learn experience for health science undergraduates

As part of a bold health sciences initiative, the University of South Carolina has named David Simmons as faculty principal of the Galen Health Fellows, a new living and learning community for undergraduates studying in the health sciences.

Simmons, an associate professor in anthropology and public health and an associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion for the Arnold School of Public Health, will lead the community of approximately 300 students.

"David’s depth of experience and investment in student success makes him the ideal person to lead this important new student initiative,” says Provost Joan Gabel. “His training and experience combined with his relationships across campus, the state, the nation and the world will allow him to lead our Galen Health Fellows in whatever direction their health care passion takes them.”

South Carolina’s fast growing health-care industry is creating demand for more college-educated workers. And with 100 degree programs, the university offers the state’s most comprehensive suite of health disciplines. The Galen Health Fellows will allow students to live in a residential community while exploring a broad range of integrated health science programming.

Galen Fellows represent an array of health-related areas: biology, biomedical engineering, cardiovascular technology, chemistry and biochemistry, exercise science, nursing, pharmacy, psychology, public health and social work. It is among 18 living and learning communities at the university with its hub in Patterson Hall and has a separate application process.

Simmons joined the university’s College of Arts and Sciences faculty 12 years ago, after completing a three-year post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School. His research in medical anthropology and public health focuses on West and Southern Africa, the Dominican Republic and U.S. South.

He says helping students see health through an interdisciplinary lens is what inspired him to apply for the faculty principal position.

“My experiences all around the world — in Africa and the Caribbean — have taught me that an interdisciplinary frame is important for understanding complex health problems. This means understanding that health and disease aren’t just biological states. Social forces of poverty, social isolation, discrimination and racism can get under people’s skins and make them sick,” Simmons says. “As a teacher, I draw on my global experiences to give students a sense of the range of approaches to help ameliorate social, physical and psychological suffering.”

Simmons says he sees mentoring at the heart of his new role.

“I know from my own experience as an undergraduate that having great mentors made my college experience productive and rich beyond measure,” Simmons says. “Having people around me who were well-informed, passionate and interested in me helped pave the way for much of my own sense of mentoring and the paying-it-forward that I hope to bring to my role as faculty principal.”

He says Galen Fellows can expect a full schedule of activities that will connect their academic experiences with the learning they will experience through internships with local health care facilities; health-related study abroad opportunities, including one in Costa Rica; ongoing talks by health sciences faculty and health care professionals and research opportunities that will pair them with health science faculty.

My experiences all around the world — in Africa and the Caribbean — have taught me that an interdisciplinary frame is important for understanding complex health problems.

David Simmons

Simmons work often takes him into the field. In Zimbabwe he studied the individual and combined approaches of traditional healing and modern medicine to treat HIV/AIDs. It resulted in his 2012 book, “Modernizing Medicine in Zimbabwe: HIV/AIDS and Traditional Healers.” In the Dominican Republic, he directs a community health program, where he helps students understand the complex health issues of a low-resource setting.

Multilingual, Simmons is fluent in French and Spanish and proficient in Haitian Creole. He also is adept at Shona, one of the languages spoken in Zimbabwe, and Yoruba, a language spoken in Nigeria.

It was graduate work in rural Nigeria that Simmons, a native of Chicago, says set him on a path to medical anthropology.

“It was serendipity. While conducting fieldwork in rural Nigeria, I was often sick with local afflictions, Simmons says. “The research that I was doing at the time had nothing to do with medical issues, but after suffering so much I began to wonder what it must be like for local people to have these afflictions with little or no resources. After I finished my master’s research, I immediately began to pursue a medically-oriented doctoral dissertation in anthropology.”

He has worked to understand and unveil the relationship between the social and biological ever since. And along the way, he has endured bouts of malaria, dysentery and a variety of bacteria.

“Fieldwork in locations around the world is the ultimate living laboratory. There is a thrill of discovery, but there is also the challenge of sometimes getting exposed to local pathogens,” says Simmons who is not deterred by a fear of tropical diseases. “As a character from one of my favorite movies, ‘Strictly Ballroom,’ says, ‘A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.’”

Simmons lives a full life. In addition to his many roles at the university, he is an executive board member of the American Anthropological Association and serves on the board of directors for the South Carolina TB Association.

He and his wife Kimberly Simmons, an associate professor of anthropology and associate dean of the South Carolina Honors College, have three children: Asha, Aria and Aidan.

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