UC San Diego names first black female dean in the university’s 60-year history

Dr. Cheryl Anderson has been named founding dean of UC San Diego's Wertheim School of Public Health.
Dr. Cheryl Anderson has been named founding dean of UC San Diego’s Wertheim School of Public Health.

Dr. Cheryl Anderson, an epidemiologist known for her insights on how diet and nutrition factor into the development of heart and kidney disease and cancer, has been named founding dean of UC San Diego’s Wertheim School of Public Health.

She becomes the first black female dean in the nearly 60-year history of the campus, which has significantly diversified its leadership in recent years. Last fall, five of UCSD’s 11 deans were women. Historically, few women have served in those posts.

Anderson was already among UCSD’s top scientists. In 2016, she was elected to the National Academy of Medicine, the honorary society whose members include Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and UCSD Nobel laureate Mario Molina.

The Wertheim School of Public Health was formally created in September and is one of the largest programs to debut at UCSD in years. It is charged with battling everything from substance abuse to malnutrition to communicable diseases. The program is unexpectedly getting underway during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, which is killing blacks at a disproportionately high rate.

The situation “is scary on so many levels,” said Anderson, who joined the UCSD faculty in 2012 and specializes in the study of underrepresented populations.

“It was obvious to everyone we would never have enough medicine ... ICU beds [and] hospital beds or ventilators to take care of what would have happened if COVID-19 had just run its course,” she said. “Public health measures where people are physically distant, where we have masks on, where we sheltered in place, where we have travel guidelines — that’s what kept us from essentially overburdening and even destroying our health care systems.”

UC San Diego says technology known as “nanosponges” developed by its engineers could work as a decoy to attract the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and divert it from infecting human cells.

“Those working and training in public health know all too well that there is a deep and long-standing public health crisis of racism,” Anderson added. “We see it not only in the disproportionate impact of police brutality upon black American citizens and other historically marginalized groups but also in disparities regarding chronic diseases, the impact and treatment of COVID-19, and other contemporary public health problems such as air pollution, poor water quality, poor maternal and child health, lack of access to health insurance and opportunities for healthy lifestyle behaviors.”

Anderson was the clear choice to become the founding dean of the Wertheim school, according to Dr. David Brenner, UCSD’s vice chancellor of health sciences.

“Her career, training and charisma is exactly what we need to lead a 21st-century school of public health,” Brenner said. “In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of public health has never been more important.”

Anderson has been involved in health and public service for most of her life.

She grew up in South Bay, Fla., a town west of Palm Beach near Lake Okeechobee. Her father, Bazil Anderson, was a chemist who also served on the city council.

“He gave me the sense that no matter what you were doing, it was really important to be connected to the community,” Anderson said.

She fell in love with the public health field in the late 1980s, shortly after she enrolled at Brown University at age 16. One of the professors told her to try a subject she knew little about. Anderson took “Culture in Health” and quickly identified her calling.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree at Brown, Anderson moved on to the University of North Carolina, where she earned a master’s degree in public health. She then earned both a master’s and a doctorate in epidemiology at the University of Washington.

Anderson went on to serve as a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, based in Seattle.

She has been involved in many research projects, including the California Teacher’s Study, which helped establish that drinking a lot of sugary beverages significantly increased the chance of cardiovascular disease in women.

Anderson also has played a key role in Resolve to Save Lives, a global initiative to prevent deaths from cardiovascular disease and epidemics.

Her current goal is to help UCSD establish the sort of community-focused public health schools that exist at Harvard University and Johns Hopkins.

“No one will leave [UCSD] as a trainee without knowing intimately what is going on in the cities of our counties, because that is where public health is really important,” Anderson said. ◆