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5 questions with… Johnie Rose, preventive medicine and public health researcher applying work to COVID-19

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Johnie Rose was uniquely positioned to support the local response. 

An assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine in the Center for Community Health Integration and director of the Preventive Medicine Residency Program, Rose has a long-standing relationship with the Cuyahoga County Board of Health and was an obvious choice to join a response team assisting the board’s efforts.

Composed of CWRU-based public health physicians and University Hospitals residents, the team stepped in to coordinate COVID-19 testing at nursing homes and shelters and provide advice to groups on how to stem outbreaks. Rose was quick to give credit to the county health board’s commissioner, Terry Allan, for his leadership across these efforts, calling him a “visionary.”

“He’s done a lot over the years  to forge these clinical-public health relationships, and  I think this is serving the community really well right now during COVID,” Rose said.

Allan tapped Rose’s expertise in computer modeling and informatics—typically used to research cancer—to predict COVID-19 case volumes in Cuyahoga and surrounding counties. In response, Rose teamed up with Daniela Calvetti, the James Wood Williamson Professor of Mathematics, Applied Mathematics and Statistics; Erkki Somersalo, a CWRU mathematics professor; and Alex Hoover, an assistant professor of applied mathematics at The University of Akron to create a mathematical model—published in the journal Frontiers in Physics—that is now helping predict how the virus spreads in the general population. 

While Rose’s work in public health and epidemiology is now making an impact in the community, his path getting there was not linear.

A native of rural Appalachian east Tennessee, Rose didn’t know much about careers in science or medicine. However, an elementary school principal encouraged his parents to get him a computer, which allowed him to spend hours writing programs. He ultimately went on to college to study economics at Vanderbilt and explore the use of quantitative analysis to understand how policy decisions impact individuals’ lives. 

Upon graduation, Rose worked for a health maintenance organization, which inspired him to change direction and focus on medicine. After taking the MCAT and completing pre-med courses, Rose was accepted into the University of Tennessee to attend medical school and matched into neurology when he completed his degree.

But a rare retinal disease derailed his plans. Working in bright lights during clinical shifts left his vision looking like he had stared at a lightbulb too long, often to the point he could barely see well enough to ride his bike home at the end of a long shift.

It became apparent to him that he would need to pursue a non-clinical career, and that brought him back to his love of quantitative work. He entered a PhD program in what is now the Department of Population and Quantitative Health Sciences.

“My current work combines so many things that I’m interested in,” Rose said.

That work all came together in 2020. He called it a “grueling year,” but it has offered him a unique experience as a researcher. 

“Normally, there’s such a long tail to see work translated or adopted in any way, but now we have people waiting for results from this modeling that we’re doing,” he said. “That’s pretty unusual.” 

But even more rewarding for Rose? The privilege to work with his colleagues.

“I get to work with some extraordinarily wonderful people,” he said. “That’s the highlight for me on a day-to-day basis.”

Take a moment to get to know Rose better through this week’s five questions.

1. What was the last book you read?

The Secret Sharer and Other Stories by Joseph Conrad.  It’s total escapism to read fiction or non-fiction about sailing. I didn’t start sailing until I was an adult, but it’s one of my favorite things to do or think about. To me, the ability to go wherever we want to go using energy from the wind and to survive in an ocean (or great lake) that is so much more powerful than us is an incredible human achievement.

And I like to read Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk who’s considered the father of mindfulness.

2. When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?

The first thing I can remember wanting to be was a truck driver like my dad.  

3. If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

Honestly, 20/20 vision

4. Who has had the greatest influence on you?

My parents—they are some of the hardest working, most ethical people I know. They really drove home in their words—but especially in their actions—that how you treat people is about all that really matters. They taught me how to persevere, and they taught me not to take myself too seriously or believe that any one person was more important than another.

5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?

I love the fertile environment for forming cross-disciplinary and academic-community partnerships at Case [Western Reserve]. Fostering partnerships like these to improve community health is the main goal of the Center for Community Health Integration, where I have my primary appointment. 

The best part of being at Case [Western Reserve] is no doubt my colleagues. I work with some of the smartest, kindest, most socially conscious people I’ve ever met. These folks have tremendous talent and frequently choose to forego more lucrative private sector careers for the opportunity to create, teach and serve. It’s a great privilege to work in this environment. 

Foremost among these colleagues would have to be my professional and personal mentor Dr. Kurt Stange. Not only is he incredibly kind, compassionate and humble himself, but he has a way of bringing the same qualities out of others.