Alumni Features Public Health

MPH alumna puts science into action

Lisa Oakley’s decision to pursue an MPH from Oregon State led to a career with the CDC

Lisa Oakley portrait

By Hanna Knowles

Lisa Oakley, PhD, MPH ’09, is an epidemiologist in the CDC’s Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion, International Infection Control Program.  

She earned an MPH with a focus in global health from Oregon State University and a PhD in behavioral sciences and health education from Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health before returning to Oregon State for a three-year postdoctoral fellowship in the health management and policy program.  

After her postdoc, Lisa joined the CDC’s elite Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS), whose members are known colloquially as “disease detectives,” serving at Kaiser Permanente Southern California before taking her current job at CDC headquarters in Atlanta.  

We caught up with Lisa to find out more about why she pursued an MPH from Oregon State and what she is up to now.  

Why did you choose Oregon State for your MPH in global health? What interested you about global health?   

I learned about the field of public health after undergrad. I was interested in advanced training and was trying to find something that brought together my interest in medicine and the social sciences. At the time, my mom was pursuing a PhD in human development and family sciences at OSU and encouraged me to look into the MPH program. I’ve never looked back! 

It was always a dream of mine to work internationally. Before starting my MPH, I spent six months living in Johannesburg, South Africa working with an NGO called Community AIDS Response. There, I assisted with focus groups and weeklong workshops for teens infected with and/or affected by HIV. It was a great experience but highlighted for me how much more about public health there still was to learn.  

My initial goal was to earn my MPH and return to working in the field in sub-Saharan Africa. However, I was able to engage with a number of research projects during my MPH training and really fell in love with research. So, I decided to pursue a PhD to continue my training.  

During my time as a CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service officer, I had the opportunity to spend six weeks in Ghana assisting with polio eradication efforts and vaccination campaigns. It felt wonderful to be working in international health again. So, as I was exploring opportunities after EIS, I decided to move back into the international health realm.  

Now, I lead our team’s hospital infection prevention and control implementation work in the Middle East, North Africa, Pakistan and Bangladesh. I’ve also recently traveled to help support hospital infection prevention and triage activities in Uganda during the current Ebola outbreak.  

What led you back to Oregon State to complete your postdoc?   

I came back to Oregon State because of the high quality of research being conducted in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences and the professional relationships I built during my MPH. It was such a gift to be able to return to Oregon, and Corvallis, to extend my academic training.  

A lot of changes had happened at OSU while I was in my PhD program — changing from a department of public health to a college — so I had the opportunity to work with my mentor, Marie Harvey, as well as some amazing faculty who joined OSU while I had been gone — Jeff Luck, Jangho Yoon and Jessica Gorman

Lisa’s public health research samples:

Study finds racial or ethnic discrimination impacts Latinas’ satisfaction with contraception services 

Coordinated care organizations lead to more timely prenatal care 

How did your experiences at Oregon State prepare you for what you do now?   

Getting my start with an MPH at Oregon State opened up the whole world of public health to me. The faculty are knowledgeable, dedicated to students, and generous with their time and mentorship.  

From them, I learned about the importance of meeting people where they are culturally and for appropriate and effective behavior change, how to read the literature thoughtfully and ask meaningful questions, and the importance of strong skills in both qualitative and quantitative methods and how each can help answer different, but equally important questions.  

I would not be the researcher, implementer or public health responder I am without my experiences at OSU.  

What do you love about being an epidemiologist with the CDC? 

I love being in a service career. At the CDC, we are in service to our state and local health department colleagues as well as international ministries of health.  

Epidemiologist roles at CDC cover a lot of different job responsibilities, from managing national surveys and data, to compiling information from jurisdictions to gather a national picture of a disease or injury, and funding external partners to conduct public health implementation or research projects.  

My main role is working with ministries of health and other international partners on public health implementation – taking what we know from science and putting it into action. I love the applied nature of this work and that I’m able to use all the aspects of my training in this role — global health, behavioral sciences, health systems and epidemiology.  

Another benefit of this kind of work at CDC is the ability to quickly respond to public health emergencies and responses. I’ve stepped away from my main position to assist with EVALI, Polio, COVID-19, Monkeypox, Ebola and the CDC side of the Afghan refugee settlement.  

Although many people at CDC are subject matter experts in one or two fields, working at the national level has given me the opportunity to gain experience in a breadth of different areas. As a “Jane of all trades” type of person, this has really been a great place for me. 

What difference do you hope to make in people’s health and well-being? 

Part of my draw to public health was the ability to look more broadly and affect people’s health and well-being on a larger scale, compared to the one-at-a-time approach of traditional medicine. 

I hope to contribute long-term to improving systems of prevention and response so everyone has the opportunity to reach their best health.  

I’d like to have a career that demonstrates my commitment to service, to contribute to critical science, to aid in the response of urgent health threats, to help build systems that increase knowledge and preparedness of the first-line clinical and public health workforce, and to increase our capacity to prevent, detect and respond to public health threats.  

Do you have any advice for students considering or currently enrolled in OSU’s MPH program? 

For those considering OSU’s MPH program: An MPH prepares you for a wide variety of exciting careers in public health. If you have an interest in health, populations, communities, culture, disparities, epidemics and pandemics, behavior change, data, research, health care, policy, human behavior or emergency response (the list goes on), you can find a home in public health.  

For current students: Say yes to opportunities! At the beginning of my public health journey, I had no idea how wide the world of public health work and research was. This is the time to explore different possibilities and find what aspects of public health drive you. Volunteer for things. Contribute to projects.

Embrace this protected time to learn about the different fields of public health. The time will go fast – enjoy it and spend it adding as many tools to your toolbox as you can!  

Learn more about Oregon State’s MPH in global health.