Vice Provost at the University of Chicago
Dr. Melissa Gilliam MD, MPH ’83 is Vice Provost at the University of Chicago, where she oversees faculty development and institutional diversity and inclusion as well as the University’s Centers of Study for Race, Politics & Culture, Gender & Sexuality, and Center for Identity + Inclusion. She is an obstetrician, gynecologist, and pediatrician, with a particular interest in adolescent reproductive health, which led her to establish and direct UChicago’s Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health (Ci3).
At her core, Melissa is a healer. The faculty at the University, youth community members from the South Side of Chicago, and her clinical patients benefit from Melissa’s ability to listen deeply, build collaborative teams, and work tirelessly to address the obstacles preventing them from being at their best.
“I work with young people in community and clinical settings as well as here on campus at the University of Chicago,” she said. “Systemic biases prevent many young people from recognizing their capacities and realizing their potential. Inequalities in education and opportunity get created in multiple ways; some are [perpetuated] in the expectations and the opportunities that adults give to young people. The idea of thinking of each student as an individual and helping them recognize their assets and build upon them is something I learned at GDS.”
Melissa began at GDS in the 1st grade, where she recalled feeling empowered from the start. “GDS was a place where teachers were able to step back and help you see your own potential; they saw you. We were told we were smart and capable. GDS gave me the sense that I was being taken seriously even when I was very young. This idea is key to the work that I do with young people now. ”
Melissa’s work straddles what she calls the story of “Two Chicagos.” Originally planning to pursue general surgery and oncology, Melissa shifted to adolescent health and teenage pregnancy when she realized in her clinical work that “a lot of what was needed to improve health was outside of the clinical realm.” Some people live in communities with structural privileges not accessible to others in Chicago: “easy access to safe outdoor spaces, healthy food, transportation, museums, high quality jobs, high quality daycare, and high quality schools.” Those outside the confines of a “safe” neighborhood may endure physical and mental stressors—not to mention intergenerational health problems—that undermine health and wellbeing.
The three distinct labs of Ci3 are founded upon the ideas that sexual and reproductive health is dependent upon far more than access to healthcare and medicine, and also that engaging with the most vulnerable young people through processes that feel relevant to their lives has the most potential to dismantle barriers to their health.
The Ci3 “Game Changer” lab Melissa launched in 2013 with University of Chicago Associate Professor of English Language & Literature and Cinema & Media Studies Patrick Jagoda uses gaming and game-making to involve young people in learning about sexual and reproductive health and careers in science and health. Scavenger hunts take them through renowned STEAM-focused institutions like the Museum of Science and Industry and the Art Institute of Chicago and introduce them to diverse leaders in STEAM fields. Students also invent and compete in hexagonal grid-based board games and games using cutting-edge technology. Hexacago Health Academy, a summer program hosted annually by Melissa’s Ci3, for example, seeks High School students for their expertise—no quotation marks—for games teaching health and science topics. Ever mindful to ensure accessibility, the center pays for students’ attendance, transit, and food as well as for each survey or phone follow-up in which they participate.
“The experts are the young people,” Melissa explained. “I was 16 once, but I’m not any more, and I can’t remember what I wanted when I was. There are lots of different kinds of wisdom.”
Youth engagement in the project has served not only to educate these adolescents, but has also allowed Melissa and her diverse team of clinicians, storytellers, mixed-media specialists, mobile health service providers, and neighborhood organizers to iterate real-life health service models. Notably, a Ci3 study published in the Journal of School Health concluded that adding sexual and reproductive health care to existing mobile health units (MHUs)—like UChicago Medicine’s Comer Children’s MHU—was feasible and highly acceptable to adolescents. Students also prototyped a birth control kit for use during counseling.
All told, the labs of Ci3 have been successfully answering the questions Melissa had originally set out to answer: “How can we all come together and work in different ways to support young people? How do you design a system in which the end user is actually taken into account?”
Melissa is the daughter of celebrated civil rights activist and journalist Dorothy Butler Gilliam and the legendary color field painter, Sam Gilliam. So perhaps it comes as no surprise that she brings a creative and systematic approach to her commitment to humanitarian causes.
In her pre-clinical training—as at GDS—Melissa came to value the benefits of group learning and collaborative problem-solving. “I understood that it takes lots of different experts to be part [of a solution]. In my current work, we use a model involving multiple experts addressing a problem working with young people whom we see as experts on their own experience. GDS is the place where I first began to develop the ability to work across differences,” she explained. Then, “It’s either that or being a middle child.”
It was also while at GDS that Melissa learned to treasure the diverse areas of expertise within herself. She remembers when GDS English teacher Gary McCown first called her a “renaissance person”; no one had yet articulated her diverse interests as a valuable quality. He explained, “You can do arts and sciences—you are curious about all these things—and that’s a good thing to be.” Eventually, Melissa was able to own for herself the benefits of being fascinated by, as she says, “everything under the sun.” She was a pre-med English major at Yale. She received a master’s degree in philosophy and politics from Oxford University before earning her medical degree from Harvard Medical School and her master of Public Health degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
As Vice Provost—yet another one of her many roles—Melissa is keenly focused on the lifecycle of the university’s faculty members, supporting faculty at all stages of their careers to help faculty maintain and build academic excellence. Her work includes special tracks supporting new faculty, faculty of color, and academic leadership. Since 2017, she has led a campus-wide initiative on diversity and inclusion, which has included increasing the diversity of the faculty, engaging more deeply with our neighboring communities, and creating an inclusive campus with workshops like “Hearing One Another,” which coaches participants in “listening across difference in order to create more cohesive and collaborative environments.” The echoes of GDS’s “build networks and collaborate across difference” are unmistakable.
"Melissa's range is remarkable and rare,” explained Patrick, Melissa’s “Game Changer” “partner-in-crime” at Ci3. “As a medical doctor in obstetrics, gynecology, and pediatrics, she has made major contributions to clinical practice and research. As the founder of Ci3, she has put public health in closer dialogue with digital media and design. As Vice Provost, she has initiated new conversations on the University of Chicago campus about institutional diversity. Across these roles—ones that it is difficult to imagine a single person inhabiting—her commitment to patients and energy for new projects seem boundless. My collaboration with Melissa has been transformative for me. She is never fearful of transdisciplinary projects that map imperfectly onto existing divisions of knowledge. That adventurous spirit has allowed her to grapple with big contemporary problems in experimental ways."
The Work We Carry Forward
In January 2018, Melissa interviewed her mother on the dais in Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago during a commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. She asked her mother to reflect on her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and share some guidance. “What do we do in this moment in time?” she asked. This spring, we asked Melissa to reflect on her GDS roots, the ongoing challenges in adolescent public health, and look ahead to our shared future. We asked, “What do we do in this moment in time?”
“We must be engaged; we must pay attention; and we must vote—this type of work is more important than ever. In the various domains in which I work, I’m committed to profound curiosity and caring about other people—values instilled in me while I was at GDS and that I’ve worked to carry forward.”
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