When Dr. Van Do-Reynoso was a third-year pre-med student at UC Santa Cruz, she decided to take a public health class to boost her GPA. Little did she know, her decision would lead her down a career path, and indeed a life path, that would result in her becoming an integral part of California’s public health system.

Dr. Do-Reynoso graduated from UCSC with a Bachelor’s degree in biology and a minor in History, went on to get a Master of Public Health from UC Berkeley and a doctorate in Public Health Systems and Services from UC Merced. 

She eventually became the Public Health Director (PHD) of Madera County and served in that position for seven years before becoming the PHD of Santa Barbara County. She has also worked in a variety of public health settings, including in a community health clinic, an orphanage, a mental health department, as well as managing care at Kaiser Permanente and at the U.S. Department of Education addressing drug and alcohol use. 

Some of the major public health programs that Do-Reynoso has helped establish over her time as PHD are the Office of Health Equity — an office that grants the opportunity to allocate resources and find other professionals to help lead the health equity effort — as well as the Latinx Indigenous Migrant COVID-19 Response Task Force, a team that Do-Reynoso put together with the help of UC Santa Barbara’s Dr. Melissa Smith. Smith is a family-medicine physician and the Director of Health Equity Initiatives at UCSB. 

This task force, which eventually became the Health Equity Alliance, is, according to Do-Reynoso, is an organization that was formed to address the fact that “certain members of our community are at greater risk of getting infected and having poor outcomes.”

Do-Reynoso said that not only does the group continue to have dialogues and share resources, but she and her colleagues are also able to talk and share insights with the community once a month in a space on Friday mornings called “Community Conversations.”

She said that she believes health equity is one of the most important areas within public health, and she has dedicated much time and effort to solving pressing health equity issues like differences in received healthcare depending on one’s socioeconomic status. 

That being said, Do-Reynoso also emphasized the interdisciplinary nature of the public health field and listed some examples of different fields that can overlap with public health including environmental science, communications, data and accounting. 

She said that data is also very important to her and can help, in conjunction with health equity, mobilize the community and policy makers to actually make a difference.

“Data in itself doesn’t mean anything,” Do-Reynoso said. “So how do you take meaningful and relevant data and mobilize policymakers to change, mobilize the community to change, mobilize your public health team to change?” 

Health equity and data go hand in hand, she explained, as health equity requires looking at where people live in order to change the social and economic conditions in their communities. “We will need data so that we can have a compelling case.”

Do-Reynoso said that one of the specific things she looks at is ZIP codes. “If you live in one ZIP code that is higher socioeconomic, you most likely will have less burden of disease and you most likely will have a longer lifespan compared to someone from a different ZIP code [without] the resources,” she said.  “So … my intent and my focus is building internal capacity of my team, as well as external capacity to really look at the data and form partnerships and engage [the] community to do policy change so that we can all be a healthier community.”

Do-Reynoso advised young people, students especially, interested in pursuing a career in public health to take a public health course, like she herself did in college, get an internship, or even shadow a public health professional for a day. 

The class she took in college was on the politics and policies of aging, and it “changed [her] world,” she said. “It opened my eyes to how ultimate impact in health is through policy and the allocation of resources … That [led] me to applying toward public health instead of med school and I’ve never looked back.”

She also said that due to public health’s interdisciplinary nature and the diversity of the field, public health can offer everyone regardless of their background or discipline a valuable experience. “The bottom line is if you want to change the world, if you like being mission driven, and if you are interested in protecting the health of your community, public health is a space for you.”

Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and what she has learned about handling possible future pandemics, Do-Reynoso said that while public health professionals are trained to respond to epidemics, and while she has personally had to respond to outbreaks like Ebola and H1N1, she was not anticipating the intensity or duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It’s been an incredibly challenging 26 months, but on the flip side it’s been an equally rewarding one,” she remarked. “Public health has been center stage. And so that’s been wonderful to allow our community to get a glimpse at what public health does and because of that we’re able to form partnerships.”

She noted, however, that the pandemic has exposed some cracks in Santa Barbara’s public health infrastructure, and so state officials and Governor Gavin Newsom are now having to allocate resources to rebuild that infrastructure. “I think that with that investment, we will be able to hire additional staff to do the work that we need to do,” Do-Reynoso said. “I think that’s what’s amazing about Santa Barbara is that we have a very engaged community that’s really wanting to make a difference.”

Regarding the future of public health in Santa Barbara, she said she hopes to invest in attracting students and young professionals into their public health department. “We have UCSB, Allan Hancock [College], and [Santa Barbara City College], so all of that I see as possibilities of the next generation of public health leaders being cultivated.” 

Do Reynoso added that the number of open positions in Santa Barbara’s public health department has been exacerbated during the pandemic, and that they currently have 90 to 100 vacant positions that they are trying to recruit for across the clinic system and administrative divisions. “[I’m] really hoping that with internships and with open positions and with more investments in partnerships that we can really open doors for graduating seniors [and] for students who are interested in a career in public service.”

For anyone who is interested in public health but is not sure where to begin, or would like additional information regarding the Santa Barbara Public Health Department, Do-Reynoso recommends taking a look at their website which she said has everything from all of their programs and what they do to data reports, disease reports and reports on homelessness. “I would encourage anybody interested to check out our website and let us know how we can support your journey.”