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Just out of medical school in India in the late 1990s, Manoj Mohanan met an elderly patient during his residency that had a transformative effect on him.

“I was in a small rural village called Kokban on the west coast of India, and I would bring this woman samples from the pharmaceutical representatives for her asthma. The medical doctor I was working with asked her for money to buy those same drugs. The woman pulled out a bag of coins, dropped them on the table, and proceeded to count out the coins. Sitting there helpless and watching her count was just more than I could take.”

It was a turning point in Mohanan’s career path.

“That was the moment I said, I can't do this; I can't be part of this health system. If I stayed, I would just eventually become part of the system, and I needed to do something about it from the outside,” Mohanan said.

He believed there might be a way he could improve health at a bigger scale, by following a different path. Soon, he was on a plane to the United States to earn his graduate degrees from Harvard University. Over the past 25 years since he left medicine, Mohanan has dedicated his scholarship to interdisciplinary research that examines critical questions related to health and healthcare using economic theory and research methods.

Manoj surrounded by a group of smiling people
Mohanan with the senior leadership team of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke.

Now, as the interim dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy, Mohanan is excited about supporting colleagues on their respective paths – the students, faculty, staff and alumni of Duke’s highly interdisciplinary school.

Mohanan, most recently Sanford’s senior associate dean for faculty and research, has been appointed interim dean, effective July 1, 2024. He will serve a two-year term.

About his research

Mohanan has been a faculty member at the Sanford School of Public Policy since 2011. He is an applied microeconomist, focusing on health and development economics, with a background in medicine and public health. 

“Most of my work looks at provider behavior, for instance how do healthcare workers, doctors and nurses perform in real-world settings and how we can improve quality of care,” he said.

His approach is using evidence-based policy to address systemic issues. “Evidence-based policy is dear to my heart. What I love about evidence-based policy is that it is not based on opinion or ideology; it is based on frameworks that use the best evidence to guide the right policy strategy,” he said.

In addition to his ongoing research on quality of care and performance in healthcare, Mohanan has been studying long-term mental health consequences of the large-scale disruptions caused by COVID-19 and its effect on the vulnerability of households in India.

At Sanford, he has spearheaded initiatives and served in leadership positions. He led Sanford’s Undergraduate Task Force to help shape the student experience in the public policy major. With Professor Deondra Rose, he received a Duke grant to create an immersive learning experience for students to engage directly with U.S. policymakers in partnership with Duke in DC.

from medicine to policy

His fascinating and circuitous journey to Sanford and public policy began in India. Mohanan grew up in Khopoli, a small town outside Mumbai, India.  

“I thought my career path was set. I wanted to be an Air Force pilot, and I was selected for commissioning in the Indian Air Force. Instead, I ended up going to medical school.”

After studying medicine in India, and then pursuing graduate training in public health, he realized his true passions in health policy, economics and public policy.

“Public policy is one of the few disciplines that worries about the real world we live in. Everything that we study touches upon questions in the world we interact with, the lives of people and the impact we can have on the, the world around us. What made public policy attractive to me is the grounding in a disciplinary area of work, combined with my ability to think creatively about policy solutions that that actually matter. It was never theoretical; it was applied, but it was based in something very rigorous and careful. That's what made public policy special,” he said.

Today, Mohanan is on his chosen path as a professor of public policy.

“I love my work. I love my research, I love the community that I'm part of, the impact my work has had so far, and the potential for more impact. It is truly more than what I could have asked for,” he says.

Goals as interim dean

As interim dean of Sanford, he is looking forward to supporting others, continuing to build Sanford’s resources and community.

"I'm stepping into this role for a couple of years. It gives me the opportunity to provide the school and my colleagues with stability and continuity as we proceed, but also an opportunity to hopefully make a difference and support my colleagues. I have personally benefited from Duke and Sanford's administration, and I hope that I can do the same for my colleagues as well," Mohanan said.

From his journey in India, to Harvard, to Duke, how does he describe Sanford?

Home. That's the first word that comes to mind, my intellectual and academic home. We are a community. I think our best years lie ahead. We are on an upward trajectory. Yes, we are stepping into this difficult time in global history with challenges - challenges to democracy, challenges with climate change. But those are areas where we have strengths, where my colleagues conduct world-class research, and our students are motivated to study and understand how we can solve these problems. So I genuinely believe our best years lie ahead, and we have a lot to look forward to,” Mohanan said.

On this path as interim dean, he is keeping close to advice he received years ago.

“When I was leaving India more than 25 years ago, a good friend of mine told me, wherever I go, I'm an ambassador. That always makes me think twice about who I am, where I am, and what that conveys,” he said.

Manoj Mohanan, interim dean and Sanford’s ambassador, begins July 1.


Fun facts about Manoj Mohanan

  • He has traveled the world to hear his favorite musician, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, in concert. One memorable performance was in Rome, in the evening at the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla.
  • He loves to cook all kinds of food, but especially Indian food.
  • His first paid job was as a timeshare sales representative in Mumbai.
  • During his undergraduate studies, he promised himself he would never pursue another academic degree. He went on to earn two master’s degrees and a PhD.

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Manoj Mohanan Addresses the Community