Public Health and Hope

Published on December 4, 2020

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The isolation and stress of the COVID-19 pandemic may have left us weary and worn, but not without optimism. As we head into 2021, we asked several faculty, students, and alumni what gives them hope in their area of public health. Here are some of the silver linings they’ve found among the year’s challenges.


I have spent my career evaluating vaccine safety and effectiveness in partnership with the CDC, FDA, and industry. I am encouraged by the tremendous amount of innovation and energy being invested in developing safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, and I am hopeful that some of these products will be available starting in 2021.

I understand people may think these vaccines are being rushed to market with insufficient testing and may be hesitant to be vaccinated. My colleagues and I are hard at work preparing research protocols to rigorously monitor COVID-19 vaccine safety after licensure. We will also be studying vaccine effectiveness in a cohort of health care personnel, first responders, and essential workers who will likely be early recipients of COVID-19 vaccines. I am hopeful that findings from these studies will support the COVID-19 vaccination program, reassure the public about safety and effectiveness, and increase vaccine acceptance so we can reach herd immunity and return to some semblance of pre-COVID life.

Allison Naleway (97MS, 00PhD epidemiology), senior investigator and associate director, Center for Health Research, Kaiser Permanente Northwest, Portland, Oregon

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COVID-19 has brought renewed importance to public health and the critical connection between the disciplines that are a part of our college. Administration, community health education, epidemiology, environmental health and safety… we have all come together to battle this virus and partnered in exceptional ways. I feel optimistic that our renewed partnerships will position our public and private delivery systems to better meet the broader health needs of the communities we are privileged to serve.

COVID has taught us that we must listen to our communities more intentionally, partner with them more effectively, and adapt our systems more rapidly to improve health status. If we take these learnings with us past COVID, we will be much better positioned to impact the health status measures that have been intractable for decades.

Sean O’Grady (93MA health management and policy), chief clinical operations officer, NorthShore University HealthSystem, Evanston, Illinois


2020 is a year in which many people have seen life-changing events, and COVID-19 has caused pains and even passing away of loved ones. As one of the largest vaccine manufacturers, Sanofi Pasteur is leveraging its expertise and resource in developing vaccine(s) for COVID-19, which is the top priority for the company. From research to development to manufacturing, everyone is doing what they can to contribute to this joint effort.

It usually takes 10 to 15 years to develop a new vaccine, but we could potentially see a vaccine for COVID-19 in a much shortened time. We are taking action and are stretching to go beyond the level we have operated at up until now. We bring our best selves to work, though doing that remotely for most office-based employees, and are always inspired by our passion to improve the health of people across the world. We are hopeful that a vaccine, either from Sanofi Pasteur or another manufacturer, will be ready for the public sometime next year through the disciplined actions of all parties and the close collaborations between industry, government, and academia.

Wenquan Wang (03PhD biostatistics), franchise head, Global Biostatistical Sciences, Global R&D, Sanofi Pasteur, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


animated starsI’m very glad I chose to pursue my master’s degree in biostatistics at Iowa, and especially relieved that I’m studying in the College of Public Health. As a student, I feel safe at CPH — there are masks available, professors who want you to succeed, great people, and a dean who will make time for you. This is comforting, especially since I’m a woman of color in a school whose race is predominantly white.

I’m not going to lie, it’s intimidating and stressful being one of the few people of color in my cohort — especially during a pandemic and an election year. But I recently co-hosted a virtual Hispanic Heritage Month event with the college’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee and LULAC Council 308, and the presence of CPH people was heartwarming. I was so happy to see professors of mine, our department head, and dean in the house! I felt like a little kid whose parent showed up to their spelling bee! There was an actual warm feeling in my chest; I think mainly because their interest and support was genuine.

I’m glad I feel the support from people higher up. My next steps are to find more people that look like me, relate to my insecurities, point me in the direction of panaderias, tacos al pastor, soul food, and places that are full of color, culture, and community.

So as we head into 2021, I feel hopeful that the UI takes steps towards diversity and inclusion, and that the CPH continues to show their support, because it means everything!

Reyna Hernandez, MS student in biostatistics, UI College of Public Health


As I look at 2021, I am hopeful because I have seen some amazing changes related to feeding our kids. At the local, state, and national level, organizations and government agencies have very quickly pulled together to make sure that fewer children and adolescents are experiencing hunger. USDA programs like the school meals program and the summer feeding program have shown a great deal of flexibility to help local school districts safely feed many kids. Local food service staff continue to go the extra mile to provide their students with healthy food. All these efforts really speak to the power of everyone working together to achieve one goal — reducing food insecurity among kids.

Natoshia Askelson, assistant professor of community and behavioral health, UI College of Public Health


animated starsWhether it’s raising livestock, answering phone calls, taking orders, or using heavy machinery, there are health and safety risks involved with work. In the occupational health field, we strive to improve working conditions and ensure workers are kept out of harm’s way. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many occupational health professionals were challenged with a new and unexpected hazard within their workplace.

However, as many workplaces begin to reopen and employees are returning to work, I am happy to see so many occupational health and safety procedures in place. As we head into 2021 and beyond, occupational health professionals will continue to protect workers from emerging and existing workplace hazards. I like to think that the work we do saves lives and there will always be a place for occupational health.

Deirdre R. Green (14MS occupational and environmental health), health scientist, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Washington, DC


The past year has brought a change in how we work and how we think about work. We now describe some jobs as essential; we need people in these jobs to keep us healthy, fed, and safe. We have also learned that other jobs have no boundaries. They can be done anywhere and at any time. Work and homelife are all mixed together, and cats, dogs, and kids are our new coworkers. There is a new appreciation for caregivers and teachers. We have learned about workplace hazards, and there has been a focus on developing new ways to control those hazards. We have also recognized that we need each other and that work is more than just a “job.” Work provides us with a community of people.

These changes have made us all stop and think about how we work and the connection between work and health. Investing in worker health and well-being benefits everyone. Going forward, we have an opportunity to redesign the workplace. It is an opportunity to identify the best aspects of work — the connections with people, the opportunity to build and create, the ability to serve and care for people — and design the workplace to protect all workers and support these activities. Being forced to stop and think about how we work enables us to create an environment where people can thrive, and when people thrive, we all succeed.

Diane Rohlman, professor and Endowed Chair in Rural Safety and Health, and director of the Healthier Workforce Center of the Midwest, UI College of Public Health

This story originally appeared in the fall 2020 issue of InSight magazine.