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What’s the big idea?

New OCHI director is on a mission to find out

Allison Myers joins the college in September as the first full-time director of the Oregon State University Center for Health Innovation (OCHI).

Why did you want to be OCHI’s first full-time director?

“It’s been such an honor for the past year to serve in the U.S. Senate as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Fellow with the National Academy of Medicine (formerly the Institute of Medicine). The fellowship is almost 45 years old, and past fellows will tell you that it’s a transformative experience. When I started the fellowship, I had every intention of returning to North Carolina – I love my work at Counter Tools, our friends and family are there, it’s where I met my husband and where I spent all those years at UNC.

“But, transformative is true!  A Congressional colleague shared the OSU Center for Health Innovation job announcement with me back in January, and I knew I had to apply. Never before in my life had I seen a job announcement asking specifically for someone like me – with combined experience in public health research and entrepreneurship. All of my professional career, I have talked about myself as a ‘boundary spanner’ between industry, academics, government and community, and here was an opportunity to do just those things to meet the mission of a land grant university. I couldn’t believe it. Then, of course, when I visited and met the team here, I hoped I would have the great fortune be a part of it.”

What are you most excited about as director, a new member of the college and a new Oregonian?

“I’m thrilled for the new adventure. Big life changes like this one are, in essence, creative exercises. You meet new people, learn new things and see the world from a broader perspective. For me, that generates ideas. Add to that my nature as an innovator and problem solver – and my love for the mission of public health – which is to create the conditions where people can live up to their highest well-being – and it’s a privilege to get to do this work.”

How would you describe OCHI?

“Today, OCHI is a thoughtful, brave idea – we’re getting our bearings and have some ‘wins’ under way – and I have no doubt it will live to its potential of breaking new ground and collaborating to solve pressing public health problems. Already, we’ve made great strides with workforce development in training community health workers. We also hope to be part of the mental health initiatives that are brewing and are much needed in our state and country right now. Just this week, we see the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, two people I have loved for a long time, and in my sadness about their deaths – and my anticipation of taking the reins at OCHI – I know we need to be a player in the solving what is really a crisis of despair. And at Oregon State, we have people who are experts in this. I hope OCHI can amplify their voices.

“I think the nature of OCHI as a ‘place’ has yet to be shaped and will certainly continue to evolve. I hope readers of this article will reach out to share their own perspectives. For now, I see OCHI as an incubator – a kind of laboratory for new partnerships and projects. We’re also a connecting point for business, government, community and academics. I want the partners who have been labeled ‘non-traditional’ in public health to find a role here, to come forward. My job is as orchestra conductor or ‘lab manager’ – maybe air traffic controller – but one who needs to see into the future and tap into the great minds in our broad community.”

What are your goals for the first year?

“I plan to never eat lunch alone! I’m ready for a lot of walking meetings to get to know people and talk about possibilities. I’m arriving in September as a fresh face on campus and in the state of Oregon. To quote a mentor at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, ‘I don’t know what I don’t know.’

“So, I’d like to get acquainted with as many folks as I can – people within the College of Public Health and Human Sciences, across campus and around the state. By Summer 2019, I’d like to have a few ‘budding’ projects. Big buckets of effort could mirror the strengths of the campus and pressing issues in Oregon and around the world: mental and behavioral health for families and communities, social enterprise and economic development, climate change and public health preparedness, improving value in our health care system, building community resilience and preventing chronic disease.”

What did you want to be when you were a child?

“I’m not sure I knew what I ‘wanted to be when I grew up’ as a child. Some of my earliest memories are all creative activities. Art projects, for example. I was reminded recently how much I loved the music video of ‘We are the World’ by United Support of Artists (USA) for Africa in 1985 – when Quincy Jones brought together the ‘super group’ of musicians and asked them to check their egos at the door in favor of raising money to combat the famine in Ethiopia. I memorized the words.

“For a long time as a teenager I thought I’d be a chef. When I was 15 I started working in restaurants.  First, I washed dishes. Then, I started cooking, both on the line where diners’ plates were put together, and in the back prep kitchen. I worked my way up, started with salads, then sautee and pasta, then grill.  Looking back, I think I fell in love with the fast pace, the sense of feeding/nourishing people, and the sense of accomplishment at the end of the evening. My love of food and cooking is one example of my love for art and science. Chemistry and artistry. There is also a need for order in a kitchen – you’ve got to plan well, use your time wisely, make rapid decisions, focus and execute. The discipline of a fast-paced kitchen has stayed with me. You’ve got something like eight minutes between the time an order comes in and when it needs to be back on the table in front of the customer – and we served real food, from scratch, that was beautifully presented. Multiply that by 400 seats that turn over twice in an evening and you’ve got to move intelligently to get the job done. There is not a lot of room for error.

“I stayed working in professional kitchens through high school and college at Penn State. My first job out of college was as a sous chef at the Gamble Mill Tavern in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. That was before I left for the Peace Corps.”

Hometown

  • Norfolk, Virginia. Grew up in Newville, Pennsylvania.

Family

  • Spouse: Eric Vandervort, software engineer for North Carolina-based clinical trials organization (Rho), an avid guitarist, mountain biker and bass fisherman.
  • Fur family: Two golden retrievers (Teddy and Davinci) and one yellow lab (Tessa), all rescues.

Spare time/hobbies

  • Walks, cooking, mindless television (Project Runway!), books, husband’s musical performances.

How has your past positioned you for this new endeavor?

“You can look at my professional career in phases at this point. I started out in community. High school and college I worked in kitchens, and to this day I feel strongly that food builds community. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been working in the Senate this year and I am convinced that bowls of soup and crusty (maybe gluten-free) bread are part of bipartisanship.

“After college, I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Gabon. The essence of my work there was as a community organizer; I connected people. I partnered with a group of folks in the Haute-Ogooue province to start a nonprofit called People for the Wise Management of the Environment and the Fight Against Poaching. We never did shorten the name of the NGO, but the leader is still working on environmental issues and Gabon has something like a dozen national parks and is now working to protect their oceans, so I call that a win.

“I did my MPH training at the University of North Carolina, where I worked for a group called Strengthening the Black Family in Raleigh, North Carolina. It became remarkably clear to me then, through the eyes of my students, that some of the well-intentioned public health interventions on the ground simply did not resonate with the folks who were meant to be ‘helped’ or ‘served.’ Since those days in the early/mid 2000’s, I hear the mantra ‘Nothing about us, without us’ a lot more, but that was, in essence, the problem I was feeling.

“That was my nudge to start breaking rules. To really step out, in understanding that health promotion needed to undo molds, be bolder.

“After the master’s program, I took a job working at a small marketing research and branding consulting firm that served Fortune 500 clients. My first project was to help promote a tobacco cessation telephone quit-line for young adults, so for the first time I got to bring traditional business approaches into the public health sphere and I loved it. From there, we built a silo of business in health and health care and within about five years we were doing workforce issues with the state medical society, we built a brand around compassionate care for the new cancer hospital, and we were strategizing for social marketing campaigns to combat obesity.

“In 2012, as a doctoral student in public health, I launched a nonprofit organization, Counter Tools, that I have since grown to annual revenue of $1.5 million with a team of 11 full-time and seven part-time people.

“Neighborhood conditions (e.g., density and characteristics of tobacco, food, alcohol, marijuana, physical activity or firearm outlets) are known public health indicators. Communities also lack capacity to enact sustainable policy solutions.

“Our mission is to advance place-based public health. Funded by contracts with state- and local-level government agencies, we provide data collection and visualization technology to public health workers as they mobilize communities to enact retail-focused tobacco prevention policies.

“Our programming streamlines the process of leveraging data for policy change. Community teams visit neighborhood places and collect data from any mobile device. Data are stored, analyzed, merged with big datasets and visualized to test, mobilize around and enact policy solutions. Collected measures have known validity and are linked to actionable policies, which are linked to health outcomes (e.g., cigarette pricing –> prohibiting price discounts –> reducing tobacco consumption).

“Today, we serve public health practitioners who are working in local and state government or are organized within community coalitions in 20 U.S. states.”

First ‘real’ job

  • Sous chef at the Gamble Mill Tavern in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania

Education

  • BS, Environmental Resource Management (Minor: Sociology), 1999
  • MPH, Health Behavior and Health Education, 2005
  • PhD, Health Behavior, 2016

Professional experience

  • U.S. Senate, Office of Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), 2017-18; Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Fellow through the National Academy of Medicine
  • Counter Tools, co-founder and executive director, 2012-present
  • Graduate research assistant, University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health, 2011-15
  • Innovation Management LLC, director of health and consumer behavior, 2005-2011
  • Graduate research and teaching assistant, University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health, 2003-05
  • United States Peace Corps, 2000-2002