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Lifetime Achievement Award Profile: Carl Osaki

On August 5, 2015, NWCPHP recognized Carl Osaki with a Lifetime Achievement Award as part of NWCPHP’s 25th anniversary reception. The former faculty member dedicated nearly 50 years of service to public health practice, experience on which he drew to build training and mentoring opportunities for hundreds of NWCPHP scholars.
Lifetime Achievement Award Profile: Carl Osaki

Carl Osaki accepting the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award at the NWCPHP 25th anniversary celebration.

On August 5, 2015, NWCPHP recognized Carl Osaki with a Lifetime Achievement Award as part of NWCPHP's 25th anniversary reception. The former faculty member dedicated nearly 50 years of service to public health practice, experience on which he drew to build training and mentoring opportunities for hundreds of NWCPHP scholars.

September 3, 2015

Former NWCPHP faculty member Carl Osaki hasn't just lived through enormous changes in public health during his nearly 50 years in the field, he has helped set those changes in motion. He spent 14 of his years in public health doing transformative training and evaluation work at NWCPHP, which honored him with its Lifetime Achievement Award at the center's 25th anniversary celebration in August.

Osaki's lifetime achievements in public health stretch so far back that, he recalls, "They didn't call it 'public health' when I went to undergraduate school; they called it 'preventive medicine.'" Osaki was the University of Washington's first Environmental Health MPH graduate—back when that field was called "general sanitation." He stumbled upon the career serendipitously. "I was thumbing through the course catalog and wanting to pick a career," he said. An advisor convinced him to study environmental health. The advisor said, "You're never going to get rich, but you'll be satisfied."

Osaki credits a military training for his nerves of steel and ability to take decisive action. These skills helped him keep a cool head in extraordinary, high-profile situations, such as the 1993 E. coli outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurant chains—an outbreak that sickened and killed children—while he was Environmental Health Director at Public Health - Seattle & King County. Responding quickly, he managed inspections, sampling, decision-making, and communication with the media, all during a major snowstorm that knocked out power in Seattle. It was his first week on the job.

He also managed a second much-publicized E. coli illness outbreak, from Odwalla juice. The New York Times interviewed him about his decision to act swiftly when there was extremely significant—but not yet conclusive—evidence about the source of the bacteria. During these high-stakes situations he prioritized communicating effectively with the media, a skill he sees as crucial for spreading important, accurate public health information.

Not all of Osaki's high-profile work focused on emergency response. For instance, during one of his three terms on the Washington State Board of Health, he worked with the Chinese government on communicating environmental health messages in preparation for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. But his disaster management experience made him want to help others develop leadership skills. He got involved in public health workforce training because, as he said, "Public health has been good to me and I want to give back." His experience was especially valuable in a rapidly changing public health field.

Carl Osaki teaching at the Summer Institute in 2014

Osaki saw one of the most striking changes to the field unfold during his years at NWCPHP: the expanding use and development of information technology. “We do so much research and data collection and analysis in public health, that it has made our job so much easier. But the extent to which it is has also transformed how we conduct training has been equally impressive. Online courses and training tools have reached more practitioners, and faster too,” Osaki said.

His efforts helped shape another impressive transformation during his tenure at NWCPHP: the development of public health accreditation. Previously at NWCPHP, he had developed a precursor to accreditation, a popular training module to incorporate the 10 Essential Services of Public Health into environmental health practice that the CDC sent to all health departments nationwide. He said, "It is very gratifying to see many of the local, state, and tribal organizations which were involved in our trainings and consultations eventually becoming accredited through the Public Health Accreditation Board."

Osaki summarizes his time at NWCPHP as a "wonderful experience" of gratifying work that had an impact. He recalls developing tools for preparing for and recovering from public health emergencies—tools that subsequently, after 9/11, drew attention to NWCPHP's expertise. "We were often sought after in helping to develop, facilitate, and evaluate tabletop [exercises]," he recalled. "Those were busy times for us."

Osaki's many achievements speak for themselves, but so does his humility. On receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award he noted, "I didn't go into this field for recognition, but it's nice." What's more on his mind is making sure future generations of public health professionals have the skills to keep communities safe. "One of the things that really stands out for me during my time with NWCPHP is how well, academically and professionally, all five of the research assistants who worked for me have done. They were all very hardworking, resourceful, and dedicated. And now they are making noteworthy contributions in the field of public health. It was a joy to observe their progress over time," he said.

After so many years of achievement, and now that resources he developed and students he trained continue to shape public health, Osaki is dedicating his time to other valuable and well-earned pursuits: traveling with his wife, and having fun with his three grandchildren.

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