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Profiles in Public Health

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Diana Cassar-Uhl

MPH, PhD, Maternal and Child Health

1. In one sentence, what is public health to you?

Public health represents the place between what society provides and what individuals need in order to achieve their highest potential for health.

2. What inspired you to study public health?

When I became a mother, I found myself in a perpetual information-gathering mode, and feeling like I needed to advocate for myself and my children in order to ensure our best health outcomes. The system wasn’t serving us, rather it was serving its own interests. I became passionate about supporting other mothers, which led to educating healthcare providers, which illuminated a need for more researchers and policymakers. The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding spurred me to leave my previous career and pursue my MPH. I wanted to contribute meaningfully to an initiative like that.

3. What has been the single most rewarding experience of your career/studies so far?

I’ve been privileged to have incredible mentors, skilled and devoted faculty members, and educational volunteer positions. If I have to choose one experience so far, though, it would be my fellowship in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. I worked as a communications fellow during a momentous time in our nation’s history: the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. I had the opportunity to serve the Assistant Secretary for Health, the Acting Surgeon General, and other offices alongside talented team members.

4. What is the one piece of advice you wish someone had given you when you were starting out in public health?

No one wanders into the public health field. Rather, we all get here because of passion. I wish someone had told me earlier that there’s a difference between advocacy and rigor. There is a place for both, but they are different ends. I love the sweet spot where passion fuels a meticulous attention to detail—sometimes I get caught up in the passion and need to be reminded to slow down and take a more linear, step-by-step approach to whatever problem I’m working on. A good public health education provides that insight.

5. What do you think is the biggest challenge that the public health field should be focusing on?

I think our biggest challenge is that healthcare systems, particularly here in the U.S., focus narrowly on the individual, but true health is affected by proximal and distal determinants. An all-sectors approach is necessary to improve health on a population level, but prevailing, individual-centered attitudes and politics present barriers to progress. I feel hopeful, though, that our field can influence a shift in priorities so that we, as a culture, can put health before profits.