Q&A: An Informal Chat with New College of Education and Health Professions’ Dean, Dr. Brian Primack

Jul 1, 2019 | College News

We recently interviewed Dr. Brian Primack, our new dean in the College of Education and Health Professions, about his family, hobbies, core values as a leader and more. 

Dr. Primack holds the Henry G. Hotz Endowed Dean’s Chair at the University of Arkansas and a secondary appointment with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences as a professor in the Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Community Health.

He has served as the dean of the Honors College at the University of Pittsburgh since 2017 and as the director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health since 2014. Dr. Primack’s research at Pitt over more than a decade has focused on technology and health outcomes as they relate to emerging adults. This work has led to him being interviewed by a variety of media outlets – from NPR to the New York Times — about the connection between technology use and emotional health, like depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

Dr. Primack has degrees from Yale and Harvard. In 1999, he accepted a full scholarship from Emory Medical School, graduating first in his class. He also plays the piano, has taught improv and enjoys hanging out with his two kids — not to mention two stress-reducing guinea pigs.

Get to know Dr. Primack better in this Q&A:

Q: At Pitt, you were a principal or co-principal investigator on more than $10 million in external research grants. Many of the grants focus on developing ways to leverage media and technology to improve health outcomes. Why is this topic so important to you?

It’s no secret that media and technology keep increasing in our lives. While we often embrace them in the hope that they will make our lives better, it doesn’t always work out that way. In fact, in many cases, using more media and technology can take us away from more meaningful and authentic real-life relationships.

So, I developed our center to research ways of helping people use media and technology in ways that will truly better their lives. We’ve been studying both the negative and the positive effects of media and technology. That way, we can try to increase the good stuff and decrease the bad.

Q: What prompted your interest in the relationship between social media use and depression, anxiety and loneliness, in particular?

Emotional health issues like depression and loneliness are now at epidemic levels. The suicide rate in the United States is at a 30-year high. The United Kingdom just created a post for a “minister of loneliness”—no joke—to serve alongside of ministers who are in charge of things like housing, the military, and social welfare. It would seem like the explosion of social media platforms might help us to make connections that could help us fight loneliness.

Unfortunately, though, our research has shown that—compared with people who use less social media—people who use more actually tend to be more depressed, anxious, and lonely. I don’t think this means that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater and stop using social media altogether. There are potential benefits and ways that social media can enrich our lives. But, I do think that we need to do a better job in helping people optimally use social media to enrich their lives.

Brian Primack, TED MED talk

Dr. Primack, TEDMED Talk

Q: What was the focus of your latest research?

We were trying to figure out a set of best practices around social media. It would be sort of like making a “food pyramid” for social media.

So, it’s not just about how much we should be using but what particular ways we should be using it. Should we be focusing on just one platform, or is it better to connect through a bunch of different platforms? Should we be more passive or more active as we use social media? Should we focus on just connecting with our close friends, or should we widen our circles to people that we don’t know yet but are interested in getting to know? We’re trying to get to the bottom of questions like these.

Q: You’ve taught courses in cryptography, African art and culture, mathematical art and comedy writing. Have you always been a curious person with a wide variety of interests?

Yes, I’ve always been interested in a wide variety of things. In college, I ended up with a double major in English literature and math—and a bunch of courses in music theory and composition. Since that time, I have meandered through various other interests like education, psychology, medicine, and health behavior.

Sometimes this variety made me feel scattered—I often wished for more of a singular focus. But over time, I have learned to embrace my various interests and to enjoy discovering what the different fields I love have to share with each other. This is one reason that I am so excited about leading a College that represents such a rich diversity of ideas and disciplines!

Q: What are your top three core values as a higher education leader?

One is resilience. When working with so many different systems and so many different people, challenges are certain to arise—daily! So if we expect perfection, it is a sure way to be disappointed all the time. On the other hand, if we go into each challenge with acceptance and flexibility, we will be more likely to keep a positive attitude, and even to find creative opportunities that sometimes come out of the challenges.

A second crucial value is kindness. I believe that the core of any higher education institution such as COEHP is its people—students, staff, faculty, administration, alumni, and partners in the community. When kindness is the foundation of how we work together, we are much more likely to feel appreciated ourselves, to succeed in our endeavors, and to enjoy what we do.

A third is teamwork and camaraderie. When I was a classroom teacher, I still remember the groans the students had when I announced that we were going to work on a group project. But now I’m certain that those same kids recognize how important working together is! None of us has all of the answers all by ourselves. But if we work together well and synergize our talents then we can achieve truly remarkable things.

Dr. Brian Primack

Q: You mentioned combining disciplines at Pitt to benefit students in different fields. In particular, you used actors from the theatre department to serve as “patients” so nursing students could have a more realistic experience – and the actors could flex their skills, too. We love that creativity. What was the impetus behind that idea?

Part of it is that I have an acting background and experience in improvisation. In my 20s and 30s I was in professional improvisation comedy groups in Washington, DC and Pittsburgh, PA. During those experiences, I realized how compelling improvisation can be. Then, in my clinical years, I learned how hard it is to have difficult conversations—especially for the first time—with patients. So, I thought it would be great for students to get a chance to practice before they are actually having, for example, to tell someone that they have cancer.

Q: What struck you most about Northwest Arkansas, the place and the people, when you were here visiting?

One thing I loved was how friendly and positive people have been. We truly feel like we’re coming to a community and not just a city. Another thing we immediately noticed was the natural beauty. Of course that makes sense—because it is “The Natural State” after all—but still it was notable!

Q: What are some of the things you look forward to doing with your family in NWA?

We had a great time as a family sitting down and making a list of all of the things that we want to do together in NWA. It started out as a little list of reminders on a hotel notepad. But, before we knew it, it was a spreadsheet with nearly 100 rows!

A lot of the things on the list deal with nature. For example, we want to hike at Devil’s Den. Many others deal with the arts. My kids are already signed up for theater programs at Arts Live Theater and TheaterSquared, for example. And we are hoping to get to the Eureka Springs School of Art, where you can spend a week blacksmithing, wood turning, throwing clay pots, or something like that.

Jen Primack and kids

Q: What are your hobbies?

My hobbies generally revolve around music. I play guitar and piano—neither one particularly well, but I enjoy them just the same!

I am also interested in theater. I did work as a professional actor after college. I came out of retirement a few years ago to be in a community production of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, which was a lot of fun. But these days I’d rather teach the next generation.

So, in Pittsburgh, I started an improvisation group for kids and teens. Given my new responsibilities, I may not have time for that one in Fayetteville, but we shall see.

Q: What was the last fiction book you read? Non-fiction?

I have really enjoyed reading whatever my kids read. They are 12 and 15.

So, I’ve now read the Harry Potter series all the way through a couple of times. The most recent series I’m reading is a fantasy series that my 12-year-old daughter loves called Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger. I’m on book 7, and each book is about 700 pages! So it has kept me busy, but it is definitely worth it—both because of the talks I can have with my daughter and because it is a great story. In terms of non-fiction,

I just finished re-reading The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins. I know I sound like a commercial, but it really is packed with ideas for getting started with my new job on the right foot.

Q: What’s your favorite way to de-stress after a taxing day?

That’s easy: the dog and the guinea pigs!

We have an adorable poodle mix Ellie who loves to go on walks. She always lends a sympathetic ear when I need to talk about a long day. And then there are the guinea pigs, Bella and Zoey. We got them from a shelter near Pittsburgh, and they are just adorable.

I didn’t realize that guinea pigs could be so filled with personality and cuddly. Zoey especially likes to lie on me and look up at me, seeming to say that—whatever is going on—everything will be OK.