Aarti Sawant-Basak is running unopposed for the Board of Health/ Credit: Courtesy Aarti Sawant-Basak

Aarti Sawant-Basak could hardly contain the excitement in her voice as she spoke about joining the five-member Board of Health. A first-time candidate for town office, Sawant-Basak is unopposed. She will replace Kathleen Ward Brown, who after serving two terms chose not to run for reelection. 

Now that her daughters are old enough, Sawant-Basak said she’s been looking for opportunities to volunteer and contribute to the town. “We’ve had a great 12-13 years in Needham,” she said. “My kids have grown up here and I need to give back.” When she saw the posting for the position, she said it felt like the perfect fit. “It seemed perfect for me to really contribute with my skill set and benefit the town and the board.” 

With a background rooted in pharmacology, having worked first with Pfizer and now as a director of clinical pharmacology and pharmacometrics at Astra-Zeneca, Sawant-Basak uses math to look at data and run trials that help look at health issues quantitatively. This approach is particularly beneficial when looking at issues of disease spread, as with COVID, and working with epidemiologists to examine the full scope of a situation. 

Tejal Gandhi, Board of Health chair, said she was happy to see that Sawant-Basak chose to run, especially because of her expertise. “The pharmacy background was a good perspective to add to the ones we already have,” she said. Three of the current board members are physicians.

“The issues the board faces are so diverse — quiet zones to food safety to you name it,” said Gandhi. “(It helps) to have people with different perspectives to think of the right questions to ask with any of these issues.” 

Gandhi added that as Needham gets more diverse it’s important for people from diverse backgrounds to engage in town government, which is why she also posted the open position on the Indian community’s What’s App group. “I think a lot of times people don’t know how to get engaged.” 

Sawant-Basak is equally focused on diversity, currently working for greater inclusion and diversity in clinical trials. “If you look at the census report and look at the enrollment of participants in clinical trials here and globally, there is an imbalance with age, sex/gender and race/ethnicity,” she said. “We’re trying to understand what are the barriers that stop participants from underrepresented groups from enrolling in our trials.” She looks at these issues from a clinical pharmacology perspective. With many of the drugs they study targeting diseases prevalent among minority populations, such as sickle cell anemia and heart failure, having members of those groups in trials will help assess the safety and efficacy of the drugs in real time. 

When she worked at Pfizer, Sawant-Basak’s focus was in the neuroscience of opioid use and the neurobiology of how opioids work. As the health department plans to focus more on the current opioid crisis, she hopes her understanding of the systems and her ability to communicate that to the public will come in handy. 

As someone who focuses on reading and understanding data at high levels, her ability to translate issues of public health into lay terms will also benefit the board. She said she is passionate about shaping policy and wants to make sure to prevent any sort of imbalance in Needham. 

Her excitement for the position also stems from her deep appreciation for Needham’s democratic process. “When I go to work, I think about and talk about all these different things,” she said. “How often do you come across opportunities that exactly use your expertise to benefit the town?” She said the town has done so much outreach to allow people from various backgrounds and experience to serve and help the community. 

She said her daughters, students at High Rock and Needham High School, are excited for her. “When we do these things, we are setting a role model for our kids to do community work and to participate in these things that make a difference in the people around us.”

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