The Power of Public Health

Saving lives at the intersection of science and social justice.

Dean Cheryl Anderson

Cheryl Anderson, PhD, MPH, was appointed founding dean of UC San Diego’s new Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science earlier this year.

An expert on dietary interventions to promote heart and kidney health, she also helped lead UC San Diego’s Return to Learn pilot program, which successfully determined that a number of in-person activities can occur on campus this fall through regular testing, along with other epidemic interventions such as contact tracing, self-isolation, and quarantine.

On entering the deanship during the COVID-19 pandemic and a surge in the Black Lives Matter movement, Anderson says it could not be a better time to focus on public health.


What is “public health”? How is it different than standard health care?

Rather than caring for one sick patient at a time, public health is the science of preventing disease, promoting health, and improving quality of life while engaging entire communities and ensuring that we advance health equitably for all citizens. When public health is going well, nobody notices it—because we’ve prevented a crisis, the burden of disease, or deaths. COVID-19 is a public health crisis playing out in front of our eyes. The pandemic is an example of how public health touches everyone around the globe. We are trying to prevent further spread of the disease, and make sure people experience the benefits of epidemic interventions equitably.

What role does equity play in public health?

My first public health course in college gave me a framework to make sense of what I had seen growing up in a small town in Palm Beach County, Florida, where health disparities by race were obvious. Many policies that negatively impact a community’s health are steeped in a long history of racism, and they disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous, and other historically marginalized groups. When patients are seeking medical care, it’s important to think about upstream factors that might play a role in their situation—things like the zip code in which they live, learn, work, play, and pray, the ability to eat well and exercise, and exposure to tobacco or pollutants. In public health, we look at the broader policies and practices that might influence one community’s disease risk or health outcomes in a way that’s different from other communities. And what we see is that these policies don’t play out randomly or affect people equally. We are seeing this right now with the COVID-19 pandemic in San Diego. The infection and mortality rates are higher in certain zip codes and in Latinx and Asian Pacific Islander communities. Zipcodes in which people are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 also tend to have fewer green spaces, fewer places to buy healthy foods, poorer air quality, and more marketing of tobacco and alcohol. On a neighborhood level, there are also higher rates of chronic diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and lung disease. When an infectious disease comes along that is worsened by underlying chronic diseases, the outcomes there will be worse as well.

What can we do to better address racism and reduce health disparities?

Public health brings a social justice approach to understanding the barriers and the root causes of unequal health outcomes. Then we find ways to remove those barriers to improve the health of entire communities. The way you vote, how you spend your money, how you spend your time and energy can all influence whether or not we as a country allow systemic racism and health disparities to continue. We know how economic pressure can effect change because we saw how much influence corporate sponsors had in convincing sports teams to retire racist mascots. We can apply different kinds of pressures to encourage changes in racist practices.

What is your role in the UC San Diego Return to Learn program?

In the Return to Learn pilot program, I led a public health program to implement epidemic interventions. These interventions help to interrupt transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus from person to person. Our team supports contact tracing efforts for students or employees who test positive for COVID-19. We determine close contacts of the person who had a positive test—roommates, for example—and provide them with guidance to self-isolate and, if appropriate, get tested. This process helps to stop inadvertent transmission of the virus. We follow up with infected individuals and their close contacts for 14 days, and facilitate successful self-isolation and quarantine. The Return to Learn pilot program had a team of public health researchers, physicians, infectious disease experts, epidemiologists, data scientists, psychologists, leaders, communicators, and many others who worked quickly to make this one of the only universities in the country able to test a robust epidemic surveillance program in such a short time.

What is your vision for the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science?

Our school has several strengths, all of which inform my vision to foster transformational academic and research partnerships across the UC San Diego campus, and to build partnerships between the school and regional stakeholders to ensure the attainment of the highest possible level of health and longevity for citizens from all walks of life in San Diego, and beyond. Our strengths include a health system that is integrated with our academic mission and that allows for training and scholarship that advances population health initiatives. What’s more, we can partner with the Jacobs School of Engineering on the application of wireless and mobile health technologies to public health challenges, and partner with Scripps Institution of Oceanography on climate and public health solutions. We’re also one of few schools of public health on an international border, which allows us to study and address global health challenges and unique issues related to migration as a determinant of health. We will also focus on human longevity—public health science that covers the entire lifespan, or what I like to call from “twinkle to wrinkle.”