A highly respected health researcher who recently returned to Rochester has been tapped to lead a center at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) that is focused on community outreach and public health. After a nearly year-long search, URMC CEO Mark Taubman, MD, named Edith M. Williams, MS, PhD, director of the Center for Community Health & Prevention (CCHP). Williams joined URMC in 2022 as the founding director of the Office of Health Equity Research.
“The CCHP has provided a critical connection between our Medical Center and the communities we serve for nearly 20 years,” said Taubman, who is also dean of the School of Medicine and Dentistry. “As a Rochester native with deep experience in health equity research, Dr. Williams is perfectly poised to lead the Center and build on URMC’s deep commitment to community health.”
Established in 2006, the CCHP works with communities in Rochester and the Finger Lakes to prevent disease and improve public health. The Center manages more than a dozen programs and initiatives, from community-based programs that promote healthy living and prevent diseases like cancer and diabetes, to programs that monitor infectious diseases like flu, COVID, and RSV, as well as career pathway programs for underserved area students and University employees.
The Center’s longstanding Community Advisory Council, which is made up of advocates from organizations and institutions that represent or serve traditionally marginalized groups, provides guidance to help URMC ensure that its health education, research, and patient care initiatives meet community needs.
In over 15 years of experience in community-based health equity research, Williams has demonstrated the ability to build trust and relationships with patients and community members. Throughout her career, she has “gone the extra mile” to improve the health of the communities she has served, at one point driving all over South Carolina to make it easier for patients with lupus to participate in research studies that aimed to improve their quality of life.
Williams is a native of the greater Rochester community, having grown up in Henrietta. In her short time as director of the Office of Health Equity Research, she has already built strong partnerships with community members and leaders across the region.
“Dr. Williams is a fast-rising star as a scientist who firmly believes that listening to the community is essential to improving public health,” said Martin Zand, MD, PhD, senior associate dean for Clinical Research and co-director of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI), who co-led the search committee alongside Colleen Fogarty, MD, MSc, professor and William Rocktaschel Chair of Family Medicine. “With her dedication to improving health in our community and her demonstrated leadership skills, she is a perfect choice for this crucial role.”
Williams, who is also the Dean’s Associate Professor of Health Equity Research, as well as an associate professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences, the CCHP, the CTSI, and the Department of Medicine’s Allergy, Immunology, and Rheumatology Division, is eager to begin meeting and learning from current CCHP faculty and staff.
As director, she wants to ensure the work of the Center is “solidly grounded in the needs and articulated priorities of the community.” That, she says, will entail both supporting longstanding and highly successful CCHP programs and expanding those programs to better reach special populations, like Rochester’s vibrant Deaf community and socioeconomically disadvantaged rural and urban populations. She also hopes to expand the Center’s strategic mission to address new community priorities, such as maternal and child mortality and the opioid crisis among underrepresented groups.
Williams will continue to oversee the Office of Health Equity Research, which was established as part of URMC’s Equity and Anti-Racism Action Plan. The Office, which was housed within the CTSI, will now be housed within the CCHP, but will maintain its strong collaboration with the CTSI. Williams will appoint an associate director to manage Office operations and plans to leverage the Office’s infrastructure to support the expansion of CCHP’s most effective programs.
“I am honored to be entrusted with the care and leadership of the CCHP,” said Williams. “Dr. Nana Bennett, who built the Center from the ground up, has set a high bar. I am both excited and grateful for the chance to carry on her legacy and advance the Center’s pivotal mission: to give everyone in our community the best chance at the best health possible.”
Nana Bennett, MD, MS, who was the founding director of the CCHP, stepped down at the end of 2023 after 17 years in the position. Bennett considered the founding and success of the Center one of the greatest achievements of her career, which spanned four decades and included many notable accomplishments.
Before joining URMC, Williams served as the deputy director for Research and Sustainability for the Institute for Partnerships to Eliminate Health Disparities and assistant professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of South Carolina, and most recently as associate professor of Public Health Sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina. She earned a master’s degree in Epidemiology and a doctorate in Epidemiology and Community Health from the State University of New York at Buffalo.