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Debs Gardner: Recipe for a Public Health Career

Maternal and Child Health Leadership Training Program coordinator Deborah Gardner, MPH, MFA, discusses her passion for the intersections in public health work and her roundabout route to the field.
Debs Gardner: Recipe for a Public Health Career

Debs Gardner, MPH, MFA, hugs a sloth.

Maternal and Child Health Leadership Training Program coordinator Deborah Gardner, MPH, MFA, discusses her passion for the intersections in public health work and her roundabout route to the field.

March 31, 2015

Debs Gardner’s résumé reads like a recipe for the perfect public health professional. Add equal parts of social activism, an appreciation for science, a focus on prevention and early life, and most importantly humor. Blend and enjoy. As an avid cook and local food blogger, the analogy seems fitting.

Debs credits her "roundabout route” to public health for helping her develop many essential job skills, noting that synthesizing is a natural part of who she is and what she does. Just listen to her talk about food, one of her many passions, and you begin to understand.

“I’m interested in food on several levels: in terms of nutrition, in terms of environmental sustainability, as a health equity issue, as something that brings cultures and communities together, and as something really delicious,” she notes.

As an undergraduate, Debs majored in women’s studies and became interested in the connections between women’s health, disparities, and identity, but she didn’t plan on a career in health sciences or research.

“I was raised by neuroscientists and fled to the humanities and social sciences, in part because I wanted to write and I cared about social justice, but also because I’d spent too many awkward formative years around brains in jars,” she explains.

Debs grew up in New York City, but was lucky enough to spend many childhood summers in Seattle. Visits to Mount Rainier, Whidbey Island, and Pike Place Market shaped some of her formative memories. “As a kid holed up in an apartment most of the year, it was a paradise,” she remembers.

Debs Gardner

After her undergraduate days, she returned to Seattle and began working in youth development by managing summer camps and other youth empowerment programs and advocacy efforts. “I loved working with kids. I loved their humor and their energy. I also wanted to make a difference early on in someone’s life."

So much time spent thinking about what kids need to succeed prompted Debs to reflect on her own professional development. She returned to writing, an early passion, and launched a local food and cooking blog. “I started reading epidemiology studies for fun,” she half-jokes.

This personal exploration was rejuvenating and productive. It nourished her interest in nutrition and wellness, and gave her the opportunity to view her work with youth more explicitly through a health lens.

“I’d paused my career in youth advocacy to return to school for an MFA in creative writing. With a growing interest in nutrition and health, I started taking public health courses alongside my MFA. Because I was already going broke, I decided to add an MPH,” she kids.

Though she’d vowed not to become a scientist, she couldn’t help observing patterns and synthesizing ideas from diverse sources.

“I became fascinated by the complex connections between communication, science, health, and equity. Maternal and child health (MCH) was a natural fit, given my interests and past work, but I also began to understand its criticality. Investments—and disparities—in MCH nutrition and equity can reverberate for generations. I wanted to write about these issues and help advance the field.”

Debs does just that in her roles at NWCPHP, coordinating the Maternal and Child Health Leadership Training Program, writing for the communication team, and assisting with evaluation and curriculum development efforts.

Outside of work she makes time for hiking, cooking, traveling, and many other hobbies—all with humor.

“I’m happiest on an alpine trail on a 70-degree day with huckleberries, views, and a picnic,” she notes. “I write, edit, and sometimes dance. I neglect my growing piles of The New Yorker. I try to stay engaged in news and politics. I wonder when I’m going to get around to learning Spanish, and why that iPhone app that’s supposed to teach me it using cat pictures hasn’t made me fluent.”

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