Alumni Features

Breanne Lesnar

Breanne Lesnar

Breanne Lesnar (MPH in Public Health Leadership, 2018)
Program Coordinator for Research Engagement at AVAC

My #1 favorite thing about my work is that it is driven by a social justice agenda, but more tangibly, I love the dynamic nature of my role. On any given day I am strategizing with African-based partners, supporting monitoring and evaluation systems, creating research literacy content, and learning about the latest scientific advances in HIV prevention.

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What were the most useful skills that you gained from your MPH studies?

The project management, leadership, and intercultural skills I gained have been most useful. I support a Coalition of global partners, which requires effective communication and cultural humility.

What advice would you give future students?

Have the courage and make the time to know SPH professors and your classmates well. The professors genuinely care about investing in your growth, and there is so much to learn from your classmates who come from diverse personal and professional backgrounds. The people are truly your most valuable resources!


Pooja Jani

Pooja Jani

Pooja Jani (MPH in Public Health Leadership – Health Care and Prevention track, 2016)
Senior Director of the Mental Health Innovation Lab at NYC DOHMH

I chose to get an MPH because I wanted to work at the interface of medicine and public health to prevent disease, promote health, and effect change for entire populations of people. I specifically chose PHLP because of its world-class faculty, its emphasis on developing strong leaders, and the supportive environment that allowed me to pursue my goals and interests in public health innovation.

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What was your first job after graduating from the program?

After completing my Preventive Medicine residency training and MPH degree at UNC-Chapel Hill, I took a position as the Fellow in Public Health Practice at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYC DOHMH).

What do you currently do (if applicable)?

For the past two years, I’ve served as the Senior Director of the Mental Health Innovation Lab at NYC DOHMH.  My office has been the main data, technology, implementation science, quality improvement, and research evaluation arm for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ThriveNYC initiative, a strategic roadmap for re-envisioning New York City’s mental health system with an $850 million investment across 54 programs over 5 years.  In this role, I’ve provided the vision, strategic planning, and practical guidance to design, develop, and implement innovative projects supporting the ThriveNYC agenda.  The work of my office has extended across a wide range of stakeholders, partners, collaborators, and policymakers in the public mental health, city government, and academic arenas.

Most recently, I’ve also been activated to serve in a lead role on the 2019 measles outbreak response for New York City.

What were the most useful skills that you gained from your MPH studies?

The most useful skills I gained during my MPH studies came from courses that had concrete applications to public health practice, such as epidemiology, biostatistics, project management, and program planning/evaluation.  These skills have given me a foundation on which to build my leadership skills in public health.

What advice would you give future students?

My time at UNC-Chapel Hill was a formative experience.  So my advice to future students is:  Push the boundaries and be proactive in your learning and exploring – there’s a kaleidoscope of incredible opportunities and people available to you at the university, and from this place, you can truly go “from the Well to the World!”


Renee Kleris

Renee Kleris

Renee Kleris (MPH in Public Health Leadership – Health Care and Prevention track, 2018)
Clinical Reviewer, Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Rheumatology Products, US Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research

As a clinical reviewer, I use my knowledge as a pediatrician and allergist/immunologist to evaluate new drugs and treatments currently under development. Our mission is to protect public health by ensuring the safety, efficacy, and quality of drugs available for patients. We additionally aim to advance public health by helping to speed innovations that make medical products more effective, safer, and more affordable and by helping the public have access to accurate information that they need to use medical products to maintain and improve their health.

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What is your favorite part about your job?

I am thankful that I am able to work with other healthcare professionals for the common goal of protecting public health by ensuring that the treatments available to patients are safe and improve quality of life. I enjoy learning about the latest options for treatment and working with my team to ensure that the treatments available for patients are safe and effective.

What advice would you give future students?

Get to know your classmates and professors. My favorite part of the program was working with the people that I met. Hippocrates once said, “Wherever the art of medicine is loved, there is also a love of humanity,” and this holds true at Gillings. One really wonderful part of healthcare and public health is that these fields attract people who genuinely want to take care of others and promote health. The friendships that I made during my short time at UNC have continued on past graduation and it is nice to be able to continue to share what projects we are working on after the MPH program and in some circumstances even work together afterward.


Samantha Aarons

Samantha Aaron

Samantha Aaron (MPH in Public Health Leadership, 2013)
Deputy Director of Data Integrity and Analysis, Assisted Outpatient Treatment Program

Gillings is a great public health school and the word leadership really attracted me to the program. I have always wanted to help people and after some of the Medicare and Rape Crisis advocacy work that I completed in my earlier years, I realized that I was interested in macro-level changes. I recognized the importance of having a great public health foundation and developing leadership skills and I knew the school and program would provide me with both. I started the program shortly after completing college, so I didn’t have as much work experience as most of the people in my cohort. I was in awe of some of their many accomplishments however I also realized after taking a few classes that I had enough experience to draw from.

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What was most useful from your MPH studies?

During my time at UNC, I was able to develop my leadership style and learn how to apply a collaborative approach to solving community issues. These skills have shaped my decision-making process, my communication technique and my approach to supervising employees, which prepared me for my management position. I also appreciated the opportunity to be a research assistant under Dr. Schenck and work with United Health Foundation and Community Health Rankings. I learned not only how to conduct research but the importance of asking the right questions.

What advice would you give future students?

I would say take advantage of your resources and do not allow the word leadership or the amount of experience of others to intimidate you. I myself was initially intimidated by the experience of those in my cohort, I quickly realized that I was selected into the program for a reason. Take advantage of all the opportunities that the program offers including learning from others in your cohort.

What was your first job after graduating from the program?

My first job after graduating from the program was serving as a Special Assistant at the New York City (NYC) Department of Health and Mental Hygiene tasked with developing policies, assisting in hiring decisions, data analysis, training providers on the policies and procedures of the program in addition to special projects.  Working as a Special Assistant allowed me to learn about the many different moving parts of the program and provided me with the opportunity to learn a new statistical program that prepared me for promotion to my current position.


Sarah Iracane

Sarah Iracane

Sarah Iracane (MPH in Public Health Leadership, 2014)
Chief Program Officer, World Pediatric Project

Now serving in a leadership and management role for my organization, I have found that the leadership practice courses have been immensely useful. Understanding more fully my own capacities and preferences as a leader has enabled me to better guide my team and organization. And I have a deeper understanding of how to lead within the context of a broader public health system, one that includes government and inter-governmental agencies, private health entities, civic groups and of course the patients and families we serve.

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What advice would you give future students?

Take advantage of getting to know your classmates beyond just your class interactions. We had such a rich diversity of professions, backgrounds and nationalities in my cohort and I learned so much from peers’ personal experiences in their own health settings. Those interactions greatly enriched my experience at Gillings and I made many last relationships that continue today, both personally and professionally.

What is your favorite part about your job?

The dynamic nature of our work. I love that no day is the same and I am able to draw upon many different skill sets simultaneously to help lead our organization forward – leadership, program design and implementation, outcome evaluation, project management, etc. I’m very mission-driven and I feel fortunate to work in a setting that allows me to put both my passion for children’s health and my professional skills towards developing high-impact, sustainable programs.

What was your first job after graduating from the program?

As a distance learning student, I was able to keep my full-time job while completing my MPH. During my time as a student, I was employed as a Senior Program Director for the World Pediatric Project, an international health NGO working to develop pediatric surgical capacity in low and middle-income countries. Since graduating, I have assumed the role of Chief Program Officer for the World Pediatric Project.


Marie Lina Excellent

Marie Lina Excellent

Marie Lina Excellent (MPH in Public Health Leadership, 2016)
HTS and CQI Technical Advisor, Haiti Ministry of Health

Public health professionals are servants and in PHLP ensures high quality of servant leaders! My recommendations to prospective students is to consider what are the compelling features of public health field to you, and identify how you would like to contribute to its growth, then search on all the courses and resources available to you at UNC to manage your time wisely and efficiently towards your career goals. Let your goals informed the selection of your elective courses. Try to write down what brought you to UNC for the MPH, which will help you remain focused, committed but be opened to suggestions along the way. Finally, implement self-management, performance ownership and challenge yourself to thrive for your dreams and vision!

Read more about Marie Lina

What was your first job after graduating from the program?

Upon graduation, as a Fulbright and PHLP alumna, I had the terrific opportunity to do a one-year, post-academic training and on June 2016 I started serving as a Postdoctoral Research Associate in PHLP under the amazing mentorship of Dr. Anna P. Schenck until May 31, 2017. During that year, I collaborate with faculty and staff in delivering high-quality education to students enrolled in Gillings MPH or certificate programs. I co-taught with Dr. Schenck the course PUBH 754-SP17: Research Frameworks and Methods for Assessing and Improving Population Health. Another rewarding experience during that time was the opportunity to conduct the evaluation of the reaccreditation of North Carolina Local Health Departments (FY2013-2016) in collaboration with the North Carolina Institute of Public Health (NCIPH), which findings and recommendations were shared via oral presentations at the 2016 NCPHA Fall Educational Conference under the Academic Practice-Based Research Section, in New Bern, NC, September 14-16, 2016.

On June 2017, I went back home [Haiti] and started my current job as Technical Advisor for HIV Testing Services (HTS) and Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI) at USAID funded project, EQUIP [Extending Quality Improvement Practices for HIV/AIDS].

What is your favorite part about your job?

I enjoy my job and UNC-Gillings has prepared me very well to exceed the expectations at work. Since I am passionate about global health, I must admit that my favorite task is to contribute to the development of national guidelines and service delivery tools with the National AIDS Control Program, which I then go on the field to teach/coach front line providers on. My philosophy is “Know to better serve others! Therefore, I am grateful to God for my ability to transfer my knowledge and skills to others for equity in healthcare and public health.

What were the most useful skills that you gained from the MPH studies that you use at your current job?

I would say the most practical skills from the numerous ones that I have gained from my studies at UNC-Gillings include: Collaborative leadership; Evaluation; Grant writing; Questionnaire development; Negotiations; Logic model and framework.


Alumni Spotlights

Each semester, we spotlight alumni from the Public Health Leadership Program in our newsletter. The spotlight provides an opportunity for alumni to discuss their most recent projects and research as well as their hobbies and interests away from work

Read more about Marie Lina and other Alumni Spotlights.

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