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A door at the Salus Center on SLU's campus with the words "College for Public Health and Social Justice Saint Louis University" on it.

Public Health Research — The Jesuit Way

Leslie McClure, Ph.D., dean of Saint Louis University’s College for Public Health and Social Justice and fellow with the SLU Research Institute, reflects on the experiences that brought her to this new position and what it means to grow public health research in the Jesuit tradition — and having fun doing it.

Years before she was the dean of the College for Public Health and Social Justice at Saint Louis University, Leslie McClure, Ph.D., was an undergraduate student at the University of Kansas. She had always been good with numbers, so it seemed natural for her to study mathematics. But a family health scare soon inspired McClure to seek a higher purpose in her studies.

“When I was in college, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was a math major, but now I didn’t want to do pure math,” McClure recalled. “That’s what motivated me to go into biostatistics. I thought it was a nice marriage of my quantitative skills and the real application of public health.”

McClure went on to earn a doctorate in biostatistics from the University of Michigan. As a newly minted biostatistician, McClure’s first love was clinical trials. She enjoyed the regimentation of them, and she soon developed a knack for collecting, cleaning and analyzing trial data.

Early in her career, McClure became involved with a large cohort study examining why Black patients die of stroke at much higher rates than white patients. The experience was formative for McClure, and it allowed her to begin asking critical questions about racial and geographic health inequities — that is, how a person’s location and race affect their health outcomes.

“I’m motivated by a desire to eliminate inequities. We live in a world where you live, what you look like, and what resources you have determine your health outcomes,” said McClure. “I want to help change that so that everyone has equal access and equal opportunity.”

McClure sees a Jesuit research university like SLU as an ideal place to pursue this passion. She believes there is a natural synergy between being an effective public health expert and the Jesuit value of cura personalis — caring for the whole person. As she steers the college toward a more rigorous research agenda, McClure believes holding to this mission is essential to research growth.

“At its core, public health is aligned with our mission,” said McClure. “We want to continue to grow our research, but we don’t want to do it absent of our mission. So as we go forward and build our research infrastructure and applications, we can’t lose sight of why we do all of this.”

In addition to her responsibilities as dean, McClure is an active researcher herself. She is working with colleagues at Drexel University on two projects: one is to develop new tools for caretakers of people living with dementia, and the second is to better understand how early detection of autism may lead to better outcomes for school-age children. Projects such as these have made McClure a renowned researcher, and in November 2023, she was named a SLU Research Institute Fellow in recognition of her outstanding contributions to her field.

McClure believes her experience as a researcher will enable her to better lead the college: “One thing I’ve tried throughout my career is to understand the different experiences of faculty so that I can better support them, advise them, and advocate for them. So as we grow research in the college, having been an active researcher myself, and continuing to be an active researcher here at SLU, will allow me to do just that.”

McClure is eager to get students involved, too. She believes that as the college continues to grow research, opportunities for students in public health practice and research will grow as well.

“Students are a great avenue for new ideas and insights. They bring an enthusiasm and idealism that we need in research. We need the spark in their eyes and their strong desire to make the world a better place,” said McClure.

As she continues to settle into her new role as dean, McClure is excited for the journey in front of her. There may be challenges, and though the work may be serious, McClure hopes that SLU faculty and students don’t lose sight of one important detail: that they have fun doing what they do.

“I’ve had outstanding collaborators who have allowed me to have a really fun research career, and I think that’s something we can’t lose sight of: It should be fun!” said McClure. “We should enjoy what we’re doing, even as we’re tackling some really challenging problems. Too many people go through life not enjoying what they do, and I’ve really tried to take the opposite perspective: I really try to have fun doing what I do.”


Story by Kevin Lynch, senior communications manager in the Office of the Vice President for Research.

This piece was written for the 2023 SLU Research Institute Annual Impact Report. The Impact Report is printed each spring to celebrate the successes of our researchers from the previous year and share the story of SLU's rise as a preeminent Jesuit research university. More information can be found here.