Adjunct Professor Lisa Manhart has devoted much of the last five years of her life to launching a new model of student learning and engagement at the University, mentoring students in strategic analysis, and building a top-notch research and training organization. Alongside Associate Professor Judd Walson, Manhart has co-led the University of Washington’s START Center, which uses an innovative mentorship model to provide high-quality analysis and research support to public health organizations while developing applied research and analytic skills of graduate research assistants in global and domestic public health. With START successfully launched, Manhart found that she wanted to spend more of her time on her research program, and will be leaving the START Center at the end of July.
During her tenure as co-director, START has grown from an idea hatched by former Department Chair King Holmes with David Shoultz and Saara Romu at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to a rigorous analysis machine, churning out 17 consulting projects per year, and employing nearly 20 students per year.
“The incredible success of START, both in providing the highest quality research and analysis AND in providing a training opportunity for promising research assistants at UW, is a direct result of Lisa's incredible vision, dedication and planning,” said Associate Professor Judd Walson. “Lisa has a remarkable talent for understanding all of the critical pieces necessary to organize and run a complicated organization. This talent, combined with her passion for research and training, has truly been the driving force behind the success of START.”
We sat down with Dr. Manhart to find out more about her time at START and plans for the future.
How did you come to co-lead START?
As often happens, King Holmes put Judd and I together to develop START. We met with our colleagues in the Foster School of Business and Saara Romu from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to initiate the partnership and learn about the Evans School’s Policy Analysis and Research Group (EPAR), which was the first UW/Gates Foundation Partnership Program, founded by Leigh Anderson. Judd and I then began planning and hiring, starting out with a small group of two students and some excellent administrative help. Judd and I have very complementary skills, so the co-directorship model was really effective.
Tell me about some of the more challenging moments in the history of START.
Probably the most challenging moment was beginning our first project. Our task was to identify where a mass drug administration program would have the biggest effect. We had to think much more broadly then we usually do in academics, communicate a lot of information in a concise and accessible way, and figure out how to mentor students in a different way – all under a very tight deadline. We were learning as we went, since we really hadn’t done anything like this before. It was a very successful project and it was followed by a time of really rapid growth and expansion of the program as we got more and more requests from the foundation. It was pretty hectic – but it was also really exciting because it was an opportunity to think about things we wouldn’t normally think about and build an organization.
The other challenging time was setting up the START Center. We’re trained in public health and research, not business administration, yet the START Center needed to function as an effective business unit. And we needed to develop systems and plans to expand and work with other clients in addition to the foundation. With a lot of help, we developed a business plan and smoothed out the rough edges of our start-up program. START now runs pretty smoothly and efficiently, supporting the students and mentors so they can focus on the work with the program teams at the foundation.
What will you miss most about START?
There are a lot of things I’ll miss about START! But mostly it will be the people involved in START. We’ve built a really great team of smart, talented people. Although I’ll still see them, I won’t be working intensely with them on a day-to-day basis any more. Sharing the leadership of START with Judd has been an amazing experience. His enthusiasm and energy are contagious and his vision is largely responsible for the growth that the START Center has undergone. He’s taught me so much – both about leading an organization and about myself. And of course I’ll miss the opportunities to work on interesting global health problems posed by the foundation and other clients. They’re big issues, and they stretch our thinking in really interesting ways. I’ll still be stretching my thinking with my own research – just in a much more focused way, and I’ll miss the broader perspective of the projects START does.
What will you do with your new free time? Will you still be involved in global health?
I’m stepping down from START because my own research wasn’t getting the attention it needed, so most of my “new free time” will be spent on my research program. I have two projects to study the role of the microbiome in STI-related syndromes and lots of ideas for additional studies. I’d like to re-ignite my collaboration in India where I have a great group of collaborators working on HIV and depression, stigma, and coping skills. I’m also developing a new epidemiology course for undergraduates on STIs that I’ll teach in the fall.
Manhart left her position as co-director at the end of July. In her stead, Affiliate Professor Ann Duerr will join the leadership group as Global Program Director and Adjunct Associate Professor Stephen Hawes will expand his role as Associate Director of the Center. Judd Walson will serve as Director, and former Program Manager Emily Allen will take on the role of Managing Director.
To learn more about the START Center visit their website.