July 21, 2020

Head shot of Dr. Cheryl Anderson

Dr. Cheryl Anderson

Cheryl Anderson, PhD, was named the founding dean of the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science at the University of California San Diego (UC San Diego). The UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health alumna says experiences at Gillings prepared her for the challenge of leading a school of public health during a pandemic.

A $25 million lead gift from Nicole and Herbert Wertheim, OD, DSc, MD, and the Wertheim Family Foundation established the new school, which will emphasize research and education to prevent disease, prolong life and promote health through organized community efforts.

“Dr. Anderson is perfectly positioned to lead our new school of public health and human longevity science,” said UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla, PhD. “Her distinguished career in teaching, epidemiological research and higher education administration have forged an innovative, unified approach to public health. She shares the unique vision of Dr. Herbert and Nicole Wertheim to positively impact the well-being of individuals by implementing solutions to reduce or eliminate disparities in disadvantaged or underserved communities and improving the overall health of our communities.”

Anderson earned a Master of Public Health degree in health behavior and health education (HBHE) from the Gillings School in 1994 and says the experience exposed her to inclusive, compassionate and empowering leadership that informs her own approach. She credits Professor Emeritus Jo Anne Earp, ScD, who was chair of the School’s Department of HBHE, and Barbara K. Rimer, DrPH, dean and Alumni Distinguished Professor, for inspiring her by “doing the right thing, even when it was not convenient” and supporting both early- and late-career colleagues.

Anderson also appreciates the varied and practical nature of the education she received at Gillings, which included a community diagnosis project. And, when working on research led by Professor Elizabeth Mutran, PhD, she traveled to rural neighborhoods across North Carolina to understand health issues of older adults.

“We did not just sit in the ivory tower,” she said. “We went out to various towns in North Carolina and really got to experience and love the greater community.”

Anderson views the training she received in health behavior at the Gillings School as foundational for her career path.

“Even though I went on to train in epidemiology and nutrition, I still value that training in health behavior,” she said. “If we don’t understand disease etiology and human behavior, we can’t get the public to change behaviors for common good, and we can’t improve public health.”

She sees that behavior change as “key” in confronting the COVID-19 pandemic and the public health crisis of structural racism, noting that the Gillings School taught students the extent to which racism was “at the heart” of public health outcomes.

Anderson applies lessons from health behavior as principal investigator of UC San Diego’s Return to Learn program, which is exploring how to have early detection of SARS-CoV-2 and epidemic intervention if students return to campus. The program has used focus groups, individual qualitative interviews and surveys to understand the motivators and barriers of student participation in testing and contact tracing for COVID-19. Anderson stresses the importance of using messaging with a public health focus to communicate that small actions by individual people can have big outcomes for the community.

Coordinating a return to campus is just one part of Anderson’s job. In addition to launching the school, she will oversee management, academic planning, the budget, personnel, resource allocation and programs, and will partner with UC San Diego’s schools of medicine, pharmacy, engineering, oceanography and management, among others, to provide students with the opportunity to learn across disciplines.

Before Anderson became the first Black female dean in the history of UC San Diego, she was a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle Washington. She is a fellow of the American Heart Association and the current chair of their Council on Epidemiology and Prevention. She also directs the UC San Diego Center of Excellence in Health Promotion and Equity, has published more than 170 scholarly papers and has served as principal or co-principal investigator of dozens of studies. In 2016, she was elected to the National Academy of Medicine.

Anderson enrolled in Brown University at age 16 and graduated with honors, receiving a Bachelor of Arts in health and society. After attending the Gillings School, she earned a Master of Science in epidemiology and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from the University of Washington. Her research focuses on nutrition and chronic disease prevention in underserved populations.

Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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