Five Questions with Lisa Warren

For Lisa Warren, public health represents hope for the future.


Lisa enjoys the scenery at Duke Gardens. (Contributed photo)

Lisa enjoys the scenery at Duke Gardens. (Photo by Phoebe Warren)

Name: Lisa Warren
Position: Administrative support specialist, Dean’s Office
Years at Gillings: 1.5


What I do at Gillings (and why I love it): Within the Dean’s Office, I’m a member of the administrative support team. When we pick up the phone in our office, we never know what the caller might say. Once, a woman told me she had radioactive Fiestaware buried in her backyard, which she was hoping to donate to the School. With help from Rhoda Cerny and Jack Whaley in the environmental sciences and engineering department, I was able to put the caller in touch with Dr. Roger Sit, who was happy to collect the Fiestaware pieces to use as training aids in the Radiation Safety Office. We do a lot of sleuthing work to help callers and visitors make connections!

In addition to the amazing people I get to work with, what I enjoy most about my job is how much I learn. The dean has her hands in so many things and our researchers study so many interesting topics. By working here I get an informal, ongoing education every day.


I’m originally from: Virginia. I’ve lived for extended periods in three different regions of the state. My family eventually put down roots in a small, rural town 30 miles north of Charlottesville. While we really enjoyed the pace of life and the beauty of the Blue Ridge foothills, it also was my first direct exposure to what life really is like for many people in rural areas. There was a lot of poverty and all the accompanying challenges.


How I became interested in public health: After moving to that rural community and getting our children well established in school, I served as executive director of the Madison Emergency Services Association (MESA) for about three years. MESA is a volunteer-run organization that provides emergency assistance to county residents in critical financial need. The organization maintains a thrift store, food pantry, housing and mentoring for families in crisis, emergency assistance funds and other services.

After that job, I worked with a five-county program promoting chronic disease and diabetes self-management. I didn’t think about it at the time, but many – if not most – of the issues those organizations confronted were related to public health. When I relocated to Chapel Hill and saw an opening at the Gillings School, I almost felt “called” to apply. I realized that my prior experiences gave me a real affinity for this kind of work.


Outside the office: I spend a lot of time with my (musical) family. I love when everyone gets together to sing and play music or go to our children’s various performances. During the school year, it seems like we go to at least one event per week in which one or more of the kids is singing. Music enriches life so much. When the family plays together, I enjoy singing along. (I’m quiet, though, as I’m the least musically gifted in the family!) I want to learn to play the djembe that belonged to my son Lane.


What motivates me: Two and a half years ago, my son Lane died from injuries sustained in a car accident. His 21st birthday is June 12. Not many people here know this about me, because it can be difficult to discuss, but my life really has been split into the times before and after his death. Lane, and the loss of Lane, will be part of my family and our story forever. It was – and still is – my privilege to be his mom.

Lisa (center) poses with her son Lane and daughter Phoebe at the Natural Bridge in Rockbridge County, Virginia, on Mother's Day 2013. (Contributed photo)

Lisa (center) poses with her son Lane and daughter Phoebe at the Natural Bridge in Rockbridge County, Virginia, on Mother’s Day 2013. (Contributed photo)

During my grief process, I have been fortunate to find good resources for parents and families who have lost a child. One is called The Compassionate Friends (TCF), which is an international support group. Through local community-based groups and online forums, TCF brings together people who are living through a similar kind of pain. I learned there is a special fellowship in that.

Lane had registered as an organ and tissue donor when he got his driver’s license, and those donor organizations provided another network of very knowledgeable, compassionate support for which I’m extremely grateful (see LifeNet Health and Donate Life NC).

Another defining moment came when I was volunteering at my church’s library and came across a book on sibling loss that I thought might help me better support my daughter. I noticed that the author had a Master of Public Health degree, and learned that she had earned the degree in part so she could better understand the childhood loss of her own brother and conduct research about how loss affects people. Now, I’m considering studying public health so I can accomplish something similar.

Since Lane’s accident, I have learned a lot about crash deaths and measures to decrease them. I was fortunate to be able to attend the UNC Highway Safety Research Center’s 50th anniversary symposium, thanks to Dean Rimer’s encouragement. I shared some things I learned there in a letter of support for a community campaign to reduce traffic fatalities in the county where we were living when Lane died.

I have a deep desire to improve the safety of inexperienced drivers, and seeing what people at the Gillings School have accomplished through public health interventions gives me hope for the future. To borrow from “Still Alive” (the song that plays at the end of the video game “Portal”), “We do what we must because we can.”