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USF Health's Donna Petersen: 'If you love what you do, you just do it'


Joining the board of directors of a Baltimore runaway shelter where she volunteered as a crisis counselor foreshadowed Dr. Donna Petersen's path to dean of the USF College of Public Health. "It was almost like I was being shown the way but I didn't make the connection at the time," she said. "Public health professionals work with the whole community, removed from one-on-one interaction." • Petersen, 53, has advised more than 25 state health departments, written a textbook on needs-assessment and written dozens of publications and book chapters on maternal and child health. Her influence, starting with the intensity of a crisis hotline during grad school, extends to the training of the next generation of public health leaders. • In August, she added another position to her 40-page curriculum vitae, stepping up as interim CEO of USF Health when Dr. Stephen Klasko resigned. Professional accolades abound, for her services on federal, state and county health care advisory boards and task forces. Two achievements stand above all, she told Tampa Bay Times reporter Amy Scherzer: her daughters, Kerry and Morgan Alexander.

Your responsibilities expanded exponentially this fall. How are you managing the extra work? Are you a high-tech, multitasking super organizer?

(Laughs) I still have a paper calendar and I am a compulsive listmaker. If you love what you do, you just do it, without even thinking about it. I'm lucky to be surrounded by incredibly talented people.

I am enjoying the opportunity to further frame the message that everything we do is in service to the health of the community. I don't have pride of ownership; I just like things to happen. I love watching the process unfold and seeing people proud of what they've accomplished.

Bet you're glad you are not on the Affordable Care Act website design team. Have the delays affected USF programs, including the $4.2 million federal grant awarded to help uninsured people navigate Obamacare?

We're all frustrated by the rollout, but to us it's a distraction from what we should really be talking about. There are many more contributors to good health than access to medical care. We spend a lot of our time on increasing awareness to create conditions to make healthy choices. Do we need timely access to affordable health care? Absolutely. But the larger national conversation needs to change to prevention to improve the health status of the entire population.

You've certainly left your mark on the field of public health. What motivated such a career?

Like many people, I tripped over it. I didn't grow up playing with a public health doll. I was interested in nutrition but not food science or chemistry. Johns Hopkins had a program that I didn't qualify for but I applied anyway. They were about to start a new maternal and child health master's degree, and I was in the first class.

The USF curriculum is being completely transformed. The faculty came together and said we can do a better job, and we want to and we will. My job is to give them the charge and the resources and let them go. I get to help create the professional of the future and that is extremely gratifying, like being a proud parent.

Speaking of parenting, tell me about your kids.

My daughters are super people. Kerry is 23 and lives in the Twin Cities and is lead singer-songwriter for the band Bad Bad Hats. Morgan is 18, a freshman at McGill University in Montreal studying religion and political science.

What is your healthy escape, when you get a chance to relax?

Music. I've played violin and viola since fourth grade. I love to cook — I make a leek tart, my children's favorite. And I'm getting married Dec. 28 to a wonderful man, an engineer from Stuart. His niece is a postdoc student who introduced me to her uncle.

I love every place I've ever lived but I do prefer cold weather. I played ice hockey as a kid in Buffalo and I started the women's rugby team at Drew University, which is still going strong.

As an academic, you're pretty removed from the work you love. Do you miss being in the trenches?

I continued to volunteer for years and I am comfortable where I am. It's very humbling to think about the impact you can have. I may never know if a student of mine is in a village somewhere saving a child's life. But I'll know it in my heart.

Amy Scherzer can be reached at or (813) 226-3332. Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.

USF Health's Donna Petersen: 'If you love what you do, you just do it' 11/29/13 [Last modified: Friday, November 29, 2013 1:50pm]
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