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Research shaped career of O’Donnell School of Public Health leader

Dr. Saad B. Omer has led vaccine studies around the world and worked with the World Health Organization to draft guidance on COVID-19

Dr. Omer, shown conducting fieldwork in Pakistan
Dr. Saad B. Omer, shown conducting fieldwork in Pakistan, has worked on public health research projects with colleagues in communities in the United States, Latin America, Africa, and South Asia. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Omer)

DALLAS – Aug. 28, 2023 – Saad B. Omer, M.B.B.S., M.P.H., Ph.D., Founding Dean of the Peter O’Donnell Jr. School of Public Health at UT Southwestern Medical Center, discovered a passion for public health while he was a medical student in Pakistan. 

Volunteering for a faculty project, he donned regional clothing to blend in with residents to gather information needed to launch a rural field research and delivery site. When the project’s senior leadership unexpectedly quit, Dr. Omer took over.

Saad B. Omer, M.B.B.S., M.P.H., Ph.D.
Saad B. Omer, M.B.B.S., M.P.H., Ph.D., is Founding Dean of the Peter O'Donnell Jr. School of Public Health at UT Southwestern.

During the next 25 years, Dr. Omer channeled his initiative and built a career as an internationally recognized epidemiologist, conducting research at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Emory University, and the Yale Institute for Global Health on issues including the spread of respiratory viruses, vaccine efficacy, and ways to boost immunization rates. His broad experience prepared him to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic with studies exploring immune response to infection and vaccination and vaccine acceptance, while working with the World Health Organization and other advisory panels to shape policy responses. 

Now he plans to blend his skills in research, education, and leadership to establish the O’Donnell School of Public Health as an institution that will influence public policy and clinical practice through training and research.

“It’s an opportunity and a privilege to build a new school of public health, but it’s also a responsibility,” Dr. Omer said. “How will we help public health evolve in a background of growing obesity, global climate change, and the ever-present threat of a new pandemic? By changing the paradigms of this field and generating excellence for impact.”

‘An immigrant’s grit’

Dr. Omer began his public health journey in 1993 while attending Aga Khan University Medical College in Karachi, Pakistan. He took classes during the day and performed research in the school’s Department of Community Health Sciences at night.

By volunteering with public health faculty members, Dr. Omer gained valuable opportunities to perform fieldwork. He became involved in a variety of projects, from counseling and testing inmates for HIV in a central prison in Karachi, the country’s largest city, to studying mental health among women suffering from infertility.

“I went into underprivileged areas, and I saw that even with limited interventions, they were having a drastic impact on infant mortality,” Dr. Omer said.

Rather than do additional clinical rotations, Dr. Omer persuaded his medical school mentors to allow him to take his electives at a policy institute. By the time he graduated in 1998, he had a wealth of public health skills that attracted the attention of a colleague working at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Hired to set up a data system for a large clinical trial, Dr. Omer moved to Baltimore, where he subsequently entered the Master of Public Health program.

He was able to complete his master’s degree in a year and his doctorate in less than four while continuing his research work.

“I came to the U.S. and brought with me an immigrant’s grit,” he said.

Impacting lives

Soon after earning his doctorate, Dr. Omer left Johns Hopkins for a tenure track faculty position at Emory University in Atlanta. For the next 11 years, he did research focused mostly on vaccines – for example, on factors that influence their uptake, efficacy, and role in maternal and children’s health.

During this time, Dr. Omer and his colleagues showed that women who received flu vaccines while pregnant, or even breastfed after immunization, passed protective antibodies on to their children.

While at Emory, Dr. Omer also mentored numerous students and trainees. Many of his protégés have advanced into prestigious public health careers, he said, including in academia and at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Kaiser Permanente, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, private businesses, and Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance.  

In 2019, Dr. Omer left Emory to become the inaugural Director of the Yale Institute for Global Health (YIGH). Several months later, as the pandemic spread globally, his research focus shifted to COVID-19 and the virus that caused it, SARS-CoV-2. In January 2020, when the U.S. public was first becoming aware of the novel coronavirus, he wrote an opinion piece published in The New York Times titled “Is America Ready for Another Outbreak?” The answer, he wrote, was no.

Dr. Omer and his colleagues at Yale were among the first to publish key research about the pandemic, including defining the immune response to infection, identifying sex differences in immune response, understanding factors that affect vaccine acceptance, and using genetic material from the virus in sewage to predict outbreaks.

He has published more than 430 peer-reviewed papers in journals including the New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, The Lancet, Cell, Science, and Nature. His research has been cumulatively cited more than 150,000 times.

During the pandemic, Dr. Omer advised various governments and international organizations. He was a member of the National Academy of Medicine’s working group on equitable allocation of COVID-19 vaccines. He played leading roles in drafting the World Health Organization’s road map for prioritizing uses of COVID-19 vaccines. As leader of the new O’Donnell School of Public Health, which welcomed its first students this year, Dr. Omer has set “excellence for impact” as a guiding principle, meaning the school is committed to both rigorous research and improving human health. Ultimately, he said, the value of the school’s work will be judged by its effect on the community and the world.

“I am very privileged to be in a position to have tools to impact lives,” he said.

About UT Southwestern Medical Center  
UT Southwestern, one of the nation’s premier academic medical centers, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty has received six Nobel Prizes and includes 26 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 19 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 14 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. The full-time faculty of more than 2,900 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide care in more than 80 specialties to more than 100,000 hospitalized patients, more than 360,000 emergency room cases, and oversee nearly 4 million outpatient visits a year.