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NWCPHP Congratulates Mark Oberle on His Retirement

NWCPHP faculty member and founding director, Mark Oberle, MD, MPH, formally becomes an emeritus professor this summer. He reflects on his public health career.
NWCPHP Congratulates Mark Oberle on His Retirement

Mark Oberle at the 2013 research partner symposium

NWCPHP faculty member and founding director, Mark Oberle, MD, MPH, formally becomes an emeritus professor this summer. He reflects on his public health career.

June 19, 2014

What became a long and illustrious public health career hinged on one critical decision, recalls NWCPHP faculty member Mark Oberle, MD, MPH. As a college student fascinated with nature, he planned to become a Ranger in the National Park Service, but opted instead for medical school. This allowed Oberle to delve into the complex subject of biology and human health, and the rest, as they say, is history.

After completing his medical degree at Johns Hopkins University, Oberle served with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as an Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer in Puerto Rico and Bangladesh, and then as a Medical Officer, with assignments in 14 countries. In 1987, he moved to Seattle as a CDC Liaison to the UW School of Public Health and Community Medicine, where he began as a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Epidemiology.

Once at the School of Public Health, it didn't take Oberle long to begin to organize efforts around improving the School's interaction with the public heath practice community. And the serendipitous release of a Health Resources and Services Administration funding opportunity led Oberle to help Jim Gale, Joanne Hoover, Chuck Treser, Geoff Hoare and others submit a successful proposal for the establishment of NWCPHP.

Chuck Treser credits Oberle's leadership and knowledge of the CDC for their success, recalling how they cranked out the proposal during winter break, 1989–1990: "Despite the holiday season and the fact that he had a wife and young child at home, Mark devoted himself to creating NWCPHP. He also served as the Center Director, and look where the NWCPHP is today."

With Oberle as Director, Treser coordinated a regional training needs assessment that revealed significant gaps in public health training and led NWCPHP to develop short course offerings in Washington, Oregon, and Montana. NWCPHP also focused on practicum development, faculty-agency exchanges, and work with local boards of health. And in 1991, 34 public health practitioners attended the first (two-week) Summer Institute for Public Health Practice.

Among his most memorable accomplishments, in addition to launching NWCPHP, Oberle cites working to keep the public health system operable in Central America during the Contra War and documenting the safety of a community oral rehydration program in Bangladesh. Under his soft-spoken, conservative exterior, Oberle seems to enjoy the thrill of dangerously challenging situations, or maybe he just accepts that what will be, will be. Hotel takes mortar fire during guerrilla warfare? Put in ear plugs and carry on. Asked to feed steak scraps to wolves in Alaska as part of a research study? Proceed without hesitation. Oberle even once volunteered to be an astronaut for the Space Shuttle.

When asked what he will miss most about his work, Oberle immediately talks about how he enjoys interacting with students, faculty, and community colleagues. He is glad that he will be continuing to collaborate with colleagues on several projects after retiring. As noted by colleague Bud Nicola, “Mark has a unique talent for connecting people and projects in innovative ways.”

But Oberle also has “boxes and boxes of projects” outside the School that he looks forward to getting to during his “retirement” years. For one, he would like do more ornithology surveys to track tropical migrant species—the type of survey he once did with Jimmy Carter years ago. He also plans to publish a revised edition of his Puerto Rico bird book, which, with 18,000 copies sold, has been more popular than any of his academic publications. “He has the ability to identify fauna and flora (not just birds) by sound and can quote genus, species, and characteristics,” observes Nicola. “His understanding of ecological principles is a great resource for public health.”

What’s been most meaningful to Oberle during his career is sharing in a sense of progress in public health, where “cures” develop at a slower pace than in medicine but are nevertheless apparent. Always focused on prevention, Oberle notes: “No matter how the Affordable Care Act is amended, we finally have a toehold linking public health and preventive medicine with traditional clinical medicine, and a solid momentum that will get us farther down the road (or upstream) in prevention. It is a great time to be in public health.”

For the last 15 years, Oberle has served as Associate Dean for the UW School of Public Health, Professor of Epidemiology, Global Health, and Health Services, and Adjunct Professor of Biomedical Informatics and Medical Education. This summer, he will formally become an Emeritus Professor at the School and will continue to teach and work on research projects.

"Mark has been an invaluable resource for the Center, and a supportive mentor for me personally," says current NWCPHP Director Tao Kwan-Gett. "I'm glad that even though he's retiring, he'll still be at UW and we'll continue to benefit from his wisdom."

We appreciate Mark's many contributions to public health and wish him all the best in his retirement.

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