In the Spotlight: HSPH Alumna Melissa Abraham

Center faculty member and HSPH alumna reflects on her experiences in the field and the road that led her there
Melissa Abraham
Melissa Abraham

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Department of Epidemiology is committed to supporting Alumni as they continue beyond the walls of the Harvard Chan School. The graduates of their many degree programs continue their professional careers as faculty members at a wide range of Public Health Schools and Institutions, as private consultants at local and global firms, research scientists working on the next breakthrough in Infectious Disease Modeling, and field officers for centers in disaster stricken countries.

As a leader in the field of Epidemiology, we are proud to highlight the outstanding work that their graduated have contributed to the field of Public Health and beyond.

Melissa Abraham

Chairperson, Partners Human Research Committee
Assistant Professor, Harvard Medical School
Assistant Psychologist, Massachusetts General Hospital
Affiliated Faculty, Mongan Institute for Health Policy, MGH
Faculty Associate, Center for Bioethics, Harvard Medical School

After completing a two-year master’s in epidemiology at HSPH in 1997, I studied clinical psychology and received a PhD from Northwestern University Medical School. I completed my internship at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School, and then did a post-doctoral fellowship at the MGH Institute for Health Policy. During my postdoc, I became increasingly interested in research ethics – about maximizing the quality of research design in observational and experimental clinical research when asking people to participate in research, and the relationship between researcher and participants. I joined the Partners Human Research Committee (the Institutional Review Board for Partners HealthCare) as a panel member. It became clear to me right away that my background in epidemiology and my clinical and research training helped me tremendously in ethical considerations. In 2004, I completed the HMS Fellowship in Medical Ethics, and became a Chairperson for the IRB, a half time position, with a primary role of reviewing minimal risk research, including the areas of epidemiology and public health, international research, behavioral sciences, and health services research.

Looking back, I can see that some crucial experiences at HSPH gave me a solid foundation that I now use on a daily basis in my work. For example, in Clinimetrics with Fran Cook, I learned about the importance of a well-designed and tested survey tool. Jane Murphy’s course in Psychiatric Epidemiology required interviewing strangers using standardized tools, and gave me direct experience in the nature of soliciting participation in sensitive research. Nancy Krieger’s course provided a wonderful perspective-shifting foundation in justice in scientific methods, in scientific integrity, and in never presuming to “know” what causes health and disease. I couldn’t have known at the time how these courses and my HSPH training would be such a solid foundation for a career in research ethics. Epidemiology provides a framework for questions of justice and validity in lines of questioning – which are crucial to determinations of risks and benefits of human subjects research: evaluating a protocol’s feasibility and understanding the strengths and natural limitations of both experimental and descriptive research. I have found so much of my education at HSPH directly relevant in my career as an IRB Chair.

Social/behavioral and clinical research are no longer divided by a bright line. Research methods are also becoming vastly more complex with technological innovation. My own interest in the increasing challenges of rendering appropriate review of social/ behavioral research in biomedical settings led to my experience serving on the National Academies in 2014, where experts gathered to deliberate on proposed changes to the Common Rule (ANPRM)*. Throughout my experiences, I have discovered that there is an important role for epidemiologists on IRBs and that the field is an important foundation for those who conduct ethical review of research with human subjects. IRBs benefit from members with expertise in epidemiology and study design benefit by aiding the review process, helping researchers and institutions to conduct meaningful ethical research, and to avoid both over- and under-protection of human subjects.

Now, there are many opportunities for interested HSPH students to explore bioethics and research ethics at the Harvard Center for Bioethics, right next door. (

* Committee on the Revisions to the Common Rule, Board on Behavioral, Cognitive and Sensory Sciences, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, National Research Council, The National Academies, 2014.

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