F&M Stories

Guns, Place and Public Health: A Conversation

As a mathematics student at Franklin & Marshall College, Charles Branas '90 never imagined he'd one day lead gun violence research cited by the Supreme Court.

Now chair of the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, Branas learned "just enough" as a math major to get his first post-graduate job coordinating studies with clinical researchers and emergency medical staff in Philadelphia.

"So much so, that I actually got to lead a study on gun violence," Branas said. "To my surprise, the study generated a lot of debate and turned out to be of interest to city leaders. I was floored that a piece of research could have an impact like that."

Three decades later, his research on the geography and other factors underpinning gun violence has been cited by landmark Supreme Court decisions, Congress and the National Institutes of Health.

Branas will lead an April 20 Common Hour titled, "Guns, Place, and Public Health." The lecture, open to the public, takes place in F&M's Mayser Gymnasium at 11:30 a.m. A recording will be available after the event.

Common Hour will be followed by a reception with Branas in the Ware College House Great Room at 12:45 p.m.

Below, follow his path from F&M to epidemiology.

"Epidemiology is sort of a blending of biology, sociology and mathematics. I was exposed to all these fields and some great faculty at F&M."

– Charles Branas '90

Describe your path from F&M to Columbia Mailman School of Public Health.

Epidemiology is sort of a blending of biology, sociology and mathematics. I was exposed to all these fields and some great faculty at F&M. After F&M, I took a meandering path through patient care, clinical research and even some time working in the federal government. Along the way, I took a basic epidemiology course and was hooked. One thing led to another, and I ended up at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health (now the Bloomberg School), followed by University of California and Penn Medicine.

When the opportunity to lead one of the oldest and largest epidemiology programs in the nation opened up at Columbia, I was honored to be considered. The Mailman School brought me back to my public health roots — such exciting people to work with these past years, especially with the pandemic.

(While public health wasn't widely promoted as a career option at the time, "It's great to see a thriving public health program now at the College," Branas said of F&M).

What led you to study gun violence?

When I finished at F&M, I had learned enough (just enough!) as a math major to get a job enrolling study participants and running basic statistics with clinical researchers and working with great emergency medical services people. So much so, that I actually got to lead a study on gun violence in Philadelphia.

To my surprise, the study generated a lot of debate and turned out to be of interest to city leaders — I was floored that a piece of research could have an impact like that. Fast forward three decades later and I still feel like we have a lot to learn, and a lot to benefit from solid science, in terms of reducing gun violence.

I'll hit the high notes of some of this science on gun violence and just how far we've come in even permitting gun violence research and coming up with solutions for this sadly exceptional U.S. crisis.

How did your liberal arts education prepare you for this career?

I never really appreciated the value of a liberal arts education when I was in it as a student. Thankfully, it exposed me to such a variety of topics and experiences, that I learned how to think, be a healthy skeptic — a must for any scientist — and be conversant on a range of issues — a must for any leader.

A lot of undergrads assume that college is about skills training, which at some level it is. But savor this special time to take in things that are seemingly unrelated to your target career — there will be plenty of time to get on-the-job training when you ultimately get on the job.

Why did you choose F&M?

Honestly, because I thought the campus was beautiful and I felt comfortable there the first time I visited.

Any favorite undergrad memories that stand out?

My top memories are mostly the good friends that I made at F&M. I still see them to this day [some every day — including his wife, Andrea Richtel Branas '90, faculty at Temple University's College of Public Health] and they are an inspiration — leaders in engineering, medicine, technology, business, you name it. Even an actual diplomat!

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