I Fell in Love With Many Aspects of Public Health

An interview with Shauna Olsen

I grew up in Santa Rosa, in an environment where the concept of healthy choices impacting your health was a common theme throughout my life.

What are some of the memories that have impacted your personal and professional journey?
I grew up in Santa Rosa, in an environment where the concept of healthy choices impacting your health was a common theme throughout my life. My dad’s family has a long history of heart disease, including many dying in their 40’s across multiple generations. He was very motivated to eat well and exercise because of this family history. Thanks to modern medicine and a lifetime of prevention, he not only survived the heart attack he had in his 40’s, but will be turning 79 in a few months. Growing up, I did not understand how individual choices and genetics are just a small piece of the puzzle determining our health outcomes.

What has been your academic and professional journey?
I studied exercise physiology at UC Davis for my undergraduate degree. I thought about pursuing a career in physical therapy, but after a few internships and working in a clinic, it just didn’t feel like the right fit. I found my way to pharmaceutical sales, selling diabetes medication for almost a decade. Learning about treatment options and the clinical trials involved in bringing medications to market was intellectually stimulating, and I enjoyed interacting with physicians and their office staff on a regular basis. What I loved about the role was the health education aspect, helping staff find ways to bring resources to their patients that brought about better health outcomes and getting them excited about their role in improving the lives of their patients. I had the privilege of taking a break from the paying workforce to be home with my kids and focus on community engagement for a few years. I took the opportunity to evaluate how I wanted to reenter the workforce and quickly realized I likely needed additional education to shift my career in a different direction. A friend had recently returned to school to obtain her doctorate in public health and encouraged me to look into MPH programs. I didn’t know much about public health at the time, but the more I looked into it, I realized it could be a good fit. What I didn’t know at the time was how good a fit it would be! I started at USF thinking it would help shift my career toward health education, but fell in love with many additional aspects of public health. After graduation, I joined the Public Health Institute, where I worked with their Prevention Policy Group, combining my passion for chronic disease prevention and policy change. I had the opportunity to research prevention strategy outcomes and work on a statewide advocacy campaign to increase funding. I also did work with their Public Health Innovation Lab on a project to reduce ACEs in rural Northern California through a regional collaboration.

Responding to the Community Needs (something USF brought to life)
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, I felt compelled to be a part of the response. I joined the Strategic Partnerships team with CDPH’s contact tracing group and worked with the Safe Schools for All Team. There I found myself helping local health departments and school districts interpret and implement the state’s K-12 guidance and worked to bring state resources to those teams. As that work shifted in the summer of 2021, I was brought over to the Workforce Training & Development team as we were launching a new initiative, the California Pathways into Public Health (Cal-PPH). Our team runs an innovative program that provides training, hands-on work experience, and support for professionals and students from historically underrepresented and diverse groups interested in public health careers.

Like many interested in life sciences, I thought I wanted to go into medicine as a high schooler, not knowing what other careers were available. This is one of the reasons why I’m so passionate about the work I’m doing now! It is really rewarding to see our interns and fellows discover their love of public health while simultaneously helping to build California’s future public health workforce.