Trusting your instinct, with Public Health lawyer Dawn Hunter

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In this episode, Sujani sits down with Dawn Hunter, a public health lawyer and Director of the Southeastern Region of the Network for Public Health Law. They discuss Dawn’s career journey and experiences, what public health law entails, and combining instincts and strategy to get your dream job.

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • How Dawn found her way into public health and law
  • How public health law differs from health law
  • Tips on how to tell if a career is right for you
  • Tips on following your instincts and making career changes to find what suits you best
  • Dawn’s experience pursuing a JD and MPH at the same time and what motivated her to do both
  • What a role as a public health lawyer may entail
  • What the Network for Public Health Law is and what kind of work they do
  • Career advice on interviewing, drawing strengths from professional and personal experience, and thinking with intention

Today’s Guest:

Dawn Hunter, JD,MPH, CPH., is Director of the Southeastern Region of the Network for Public Health Law. Dawn’s work focuses on research, analysis, implementation, and capacity building related to the use of law and policy to improve health outcomes and advance racial equity. She is particularly interested in the development of racial equity action plans and implementation strategies at the state and local level and leads an ongoing assessment of declarations of racism as a public health crisis and related efforts to address health inequities. In the past year, she has been collaborating with partners in the Collaborative for Anti-Racism and Equity. Dawn also focuses on strategies to improve health outcomes through civic engagement and served as the lead author of the Health & Democracy Index. She also conducts training on equity in public health messaging through the Becoming Better Messengers initiative.

Featured on the Show:

Episode Transcript

Dawn 0:00
Having such a diversity of life experiences has helped me to be a better person and also a professional, I have been able to take everything I’ve experienced in different professional settings and just in my life, and I think apply them to every new situation that I’m in. And so I’m really grateful that I’ve had those experiences. And I think ultimately, that has helped shaped me, I think it makes me a better lawyer and public health professional.

Sujani 0:28
Welcome to PH SPOTlight, a community for you to build your public health career with. Join Us Weekly right here. And I’ll be here too, your host Sujani Siva, from PH SPOT.

Hi Dawn, and welcome to the PH SPOT podcast. So lovely to have you here. And I’m excited to just hear about your career journey, and for our listeners to kind of listen in and hear about your journey.

Dawn 0:59
Sujani, thank you so much for having me. I’m really looking forward to the conversation and getting to contribute to the podcast, I think it’s so great. And so thank you for the invitation.

Sujani 1:07
Amazing. So here’s a question that we can we can kind of start with Dawn. And it kind of goes back to advice that you would give to either individuals who are early on in their career, or maybe they’re still a student, if someone early in their career came to you and said like, Dawn, I’ve been following your journey. I love the work that you’ve done. And I see myself one day, you know, becoming a public health lawyer. What’s kind of the number one advice that comes to mind for you for this individual?

Dawn 1:39
Probably the first thing I would ask anyone who came to that I want to be a public health lawyer is to really define what it is that you think you mean by public health, and law, and Public Health Law together. Especially because not everyone has an opportunity to go through a JD MPH dual degree program. So a lot of health law that people are exposed to maybe in law school is really very different from public health law. And so I would say start by being very clear, defining like what your interests are in public health, and how you think you can make an impact through law or policy, and really listing out what those interests are, and how they’re connected. I would start there first. And I think in general, just understanding yourself is a good place to start anyways.

Sujani 2:23
So yeah, maybe we’ll go to that definition. Like if someone says, Okay, I kind of don’t know, the first thing about the difference between health law versus public health law, because I’m still like, early on in my career, trying to figure out what it is that I want to do. What’s the simplest way you could define those two terms?

Dawn 2:42
Well, when I think of health law, I think a lot about hospitals and health systems, physicians, regulation, compliance, a lot of how you operate a health system, and how you ensure that certain standards are met and requirements are met. That isn’t all of health law course, you may not also involve health insurers. But in general, I think I would say those are kind of the areas that are encompassed by health law. On the other hand, public health is much broader in the sense that it really encompasses all of the ways in which we can make communities healthy. And that’s by focusing on health care, in part, so access to care issues, for example, but also on the social determinants of health and the political determinants of health. So looking more broadly at things like housing and education and transportation. And so you’re not going to be a specialist in all of those areas or a generalist, if you will, you’re probably going to focus on one thing. And so what is it that calls to you? Are you really passionate about transportation and urban planning, there is a role in public health law for that. Are you interested in criminal justice and the effects of the criminal legal system on health outcomes, there’s a space for you as well. So I think looking within the field of public health and thinking about where your interests lie, that would help you kind of define where you want to take your path.

Sujani 3:56
And so with you, where did that kind of interest take you?

Dawn 4:02
So that interest, actually, for me started in working in Child Protective Services. I worked in residential foster care, and then later transitioned into case management. And I will say that I had never thought of this as public health at the time. But I do think of it in that way now. Because all of the things that the families I was working with, were dealing with were all things that we think of as a social determinants of health now. And so these are dealing with substance use disorder, dealing with returning from incarceration, how to be a good parents looking for housing, making sure people have Medicaid or children had behavioral health supports. These are all things that we think, you know, we encompass in this conversation about public health today. And for me, I eventually left that field but I left that partly because I felt like as a case manager in particular, I was not making an impact on the system. And I was really interested in changing the system that creates healthy families and communities and healthy children and not so much on helping individual families. That was some thing that, for me was my path I was very, I was much more interested in the conditions that create health and well being as opposed to the individual kind of one on one work you have with children and families, I think there’s obviously great value in that I keep in touch with a lot of my former foster kids. But for me, it was a real interest in the policy behind what we were doing in the fields of child welfare.

Sujani 5:24
And I’m curious to hear how you kind of landed in that area of work, because I saw that you have an undergrad in English. And then, you know, once you completed that this was the first job I think you got out of Princeton University?

Dawn 5:40
Yes. Well, while I was at Princeton, I did a lot of volunteer work with At Risk Youth and youth with special needs. And this is not the only determining factor disclaimer, but I had taken one of those career quizzes that was trying to help you figure out what to do. But that meant the message was really where do you spend your volunteer time? Where do you spend your time? Like, what what are you passionate about, and for me, it was really working with at risk youth. And that’s partly because of how I grew up. And I felt like I was in a disadvantaged household, if you will. I grew up relatively poor. We had domestic violence in my home. And I feel like my brother and I turned out fairly successful despite those circumstances. And I always wanted to work in a position where I felt like I could help other children to also succeed. So that’s really how I ended up on the path was thinking about, like, how can I help other children who grew up in conditions like me to also be successful, and most families to help create healthier families.

Sujani 6:36
I guess the volunteer role kind of sparked this interest for you to find employment in this area.

Dawn 6:42
Yes. So I thought about volunteer work, I started looking for jobs that would allow me to work with at risk youth. And that is how I got my first job, which was with Eckerd Youth Alternatives in Florida. And then later, I worked for the children’s home in Tampa, which was residential Foster Care Organization. And they also did case management. So I transitioned. I stayed with them for several years and transitioned into case management. I then transitioned into adoptions case management, so foster care adoptions, before I ultimately made a shift.

Sujani 7:16
And so do you think you kind of discovered the field of public health during this role? Or was this like much later, where you’re kind of putting the pieces together and thinking of, okay, maybe public health is where I can have this system level change. It’s not, you know, it’s not in the work that I’m doing now, or did that discovery or the field of public health and perhaps, you know, even building a career in that field come up for you much later on?

Dawn 7:42
It definitely came up later, I did not make that connection at all. While I was thinking about how to transition out of child welfare. The reason I bring it up and share it with people is I think it’s important to understand what the lived experience of people in the system is like, because when we’re designing laws and policies, it’s the lives of those people that we were working with, that are part of the system, you know, and people who are not in the system, but who have similar life experiences. That’s what we’re designing for. So for me, I didn’t make that connection until much later. But it was an incredibly valuable experience looking back, I didn’t really make the connection to public health until I started working in a lab in the College of Public Health at the University of South Florida.

Sujani 8:22
And that was when you went to, I guess, get a second bachelor’s degree, is that right?

Dawn 8:27
That’s right. So what happened is I decided that I was not incredibly happy and doing the work that I was doing anymore. I didn’t really have a plan. So I like to share advice that be more intentional, I was not intentional that time other than in trying to find something different to do. I had as an undergrad at Princeton worked in laboratories. So even though I was an English major, I thought about being a psych major. And so I still took a lot of psychology and other science based courses. And I worked in a psych lab and a neurobiology lab. So I was really interested in microbiology, and I took some extra coursework, and I was able to have all of my credits transfer. So it only took me another year to get that second bachelor’s. And I worked in an undergraduate lab as well and microbiology while I was finishing that degree. And then I finished that program and looked for work as a microbiologist in a laboratory. And really, I did that as a way to just figure out what to do as a way to support myself until I figured out what I wanted to do with my life. Which is funny because I think that position actually ended up helping me to figure that answer that question, honestly.

Sujani 9:34
Like, that’s a big decision. I mean, to go back to school for like a second undergraduate degree did like any part of you think, what if I don’t figure it out doing this a second time, if you will?

Dawn 9:46
No, I never that never crossed my mind. It was really I’m going to do this and it’s going to work. There was really no alternative option. I was supporting myself. I had moved across the country to live in Florida. I didn’t have any family here or all the friends I had were people I met here. So I didn’t really have an extensive support system. There was just no option for me it was, you know, I’ve made the choice to do this. And it has to work.

Sujani 10:10
Yeah. And microbiology Is that something that you like already had an interest in, you know, as early as high school, or did that also kind of come up as you started working in the workforce?

Dawn 10:21
I did actually have an earlier interest in it. And while I was trying to figure out what to do for work, after I graduated from Princeton, I actually took a course for fun, if you will, the local community college in microbiology, which really cemented that interest for me. And of course, it didn’t come into play until many years later. But I always remembered how much I enjoyed that. And one of the things I really enjoyed is I remember doing this assignment, this lab task where we had to, I think we had to like touch doorknobs and railings and things and then we would swab them and swab our hands to see, we washed our hands, we would touch things and then swapped to see like what we picked up. And I just remember thinking that was really fascinating to see what grew and came out of that and how gross some of the things that we touch all the time are. And I was just thought that was really fascinating. And that’s part of why, you know, came back later as a really strong interest and something I thought I could do while I you know, tried to figure it out.

Sujani 11:17
Yeah. I mean, like, I feel just having chatted with you for let’s say, like past 10 minutes, you sound like someone who, if there’s a voice in your head, and you feel like okay, this sounds like the best direction for me, you kind of jump on it. Is it- Am I getting that sense? Like, am I getting that correctly?

Dawn 11:36
That is correct. Yeah.

Sujani 11:39
Yeah, tell me tell me more about that. Because I think like a lot of people sit with certain feelings or emotions, if you will, especially when it comes to like career decisions. I just got off the phone with a friend who’s like been debating between two offers, right? So or not to offer. She’s in a current role. And then she’s debating whether she should take this other offer. And you know, sometimes we can go in circles and say, you know, this is good for me, maybe this is not great for me. And there’s like, all these practical things that come into play. But then like, at an emotional level, I think there’s so much more that you can gain from just what your body’s telling you and like your gut feeling, if you will. I know I’m personally learning how to listen to that a bit more. But it sounds like you had that ability very early on.

Dawn 12:28
Well, I appreciate hearing that, because I often think of myself as still continuing to work on trusting my own instincts as well.

Sujani 12:32

Dawn 12:32
In fact, I think we probably are always working on that. And it’s never at a state of perfection. Of course, I think you can get better at it over time. I agree with what you said, though, I think it’s really about trusting your instinct. And you can make all the pro and con lists you want. You can, you know, look at those and analyze those things. You can think about it just from a salary perspective, or a geographic perspective when you’re considering a position. But ultimately, you have to think about what feels right to you.

Sujani 13:00
Yeah. And what are some things that like you cue into when you kind of say, Okay, this feels good to me.

Dawn 13:08
So one thing I think about is, if I’m talking to someone else about what I’m doing, do I feel joy and thinking about telling other people about what I’m doing?

Sujani 13:17

Dawn 13:17
So if you ask me what my job is, and I start in my head, I have this conversation. And I’m start to tell you, if I’m not excited about how that conversation might go, then I think that’s a very good sign that maybe that’s not the right thing for me.

Sujani 13:29

Dawn 13:30
That’s, you know, in a way, having a conversation with yourself, but I think about that a lot, because I can- I’ve been in so many situations where that has really been a strong feeling for me when I think about talking to people about my work, the kind of feeling that elicits in that conversation.

Sujani 13:44
Yeah, yeah, that’s a good point. I am remembering this like workshop I did where the facilitator had us kind of go through these thought exercises. And then, as we did those, she was like, pay attention to your body like are you like crouching in? Are you kind of like not spreading yourself out? Are you not like, looking powerful? And I think those are some good indicators as well, just to your point about like, how are you feeling when you’re talking about the work that you do? Like, do you feel powerful? Or do you feel like you want to just like, quickly run through what you’re doing and not talk about it anymore? So those are some good indicators.

Dawn 14:19
Well, also think about if you are a procrastinator at all, there are lots of reasons for procrastination, but when you avoid doing a task, especially if it’s related to something that will get you a new job or a new position, or or, or new education path. If you’re procrastinating on doing that, that tells you a lot about also your commitment to an interest in that and so I’ve definitely had that experience. One I share with people is like many people I thought about medical school when I was an undergrad a lot of people I went to school with went to medical school, and I had taken kind of all the prerequisite courses and taking the MCAT and then when I was going through the application process, I just kept delaying and delaying and delaying on doing those applications. And so finally I said, Maybe this isn’t what I want to do if I’m not sitting down and doing it, because I can guarantee that someone who really wants to go to medical school is not procrastinating right now and getting this done.

Sujani 15:10
Yeah, no, absolutely. That’s it. That’s another great way to kind of ask yourself those, you know, honest questions. Okay, so you go to Princeton for an English degree, and then you find yourself kind of working at the children’s home. And then you said, you went to the University of South Florida for microbiology, and you graduate with that degree in 2007. And what comes next for you with that?

Dawn 15:35
After that, I got a job in the advanced biosensors laboratory at the Center for Biological defense at USF. And it was a laboratory that focused on rapid detection methods for food and water borne pathogens. And I love to talk about the lab because it was really interesting, it was primarily funded by Department of Defense funding, kind of post 911 as a way to help rapidly detect these pathogens, really geared toward people who are, you know, are soldiers in the fields. And over time, that shifted, there was less that concern about terrorism and those kinds of threats lessened over time. So by the time I left the lab, we were really looking at more commercial applications of the work that we were doing. But we were still doing rapid detection techniques. And so looking at the what I worked on, was really looking at immuno assays. And most of us actually in the lab, were working on immuno assays, and then also ways to concentrate samples to get faster detection. So if you’re in microbiology, or you’re interested in that, it is really kind of interesting to think about filtration and ultra filtration methods to help concentrate samples, that some of the work that we were doing. But I worked there for a while and and through that position really got to be exposed to so many different people who worked in different ways in science, from drug development, to academic research to industrial microbiology, it really helped to open my eyes to this idea that I didn’t have to get a PhD in microbiology, and I didn’t have to work in a lab forever, but my degree could still be useful.

Sujani 17:06
And then that’s where you end up kind of discovering public health?

Dawn 17:12
Yes, so I had taken an alternative careers in microbiology class. And that really got me thinking that was a classes offered during, I don’t remember if it was undergrad or not. But I remember taking that class. And I remember it got me thinking about just what I could be doing. And our work also was really guided to by federal regulations on water quality and food quality standards. And so I initially actually thought that I might be interested in doing more regulatory work related to science. So I was interested in science, I was interested in how law and policy could come into that, of course, that’s not really tied to necessarily directly creating healthy families and communities, it is, but in a different way. So then I started exploring, okay, how do I work in policy and get to kind of work to create in these healthy conditions, that’s not really directly science oriented, like regular, you know, science regulation.

Sujani 18:02

Dawn 18:03
And then I started exploring MPH programs. And then looking into this policy question about whether or not I should get an- a JD, or maybe a master’s in public policy or some other kind of policy program. So actually spent a lot of time researching these options. And just working in the lab throughout I was- I really loved that job. And also side note, the only man in our lab was RPI and I so I just worked with this amazing group of female scientists that just really shaped my whole perception of science.

Sujani 18:32
It’s amazing. So the- the JD degree, I guess, came before you pursued your MPH, is that- am I getting that correctly? Or did the the MPH come first?

Dawn 18:44
Technically, the MPH came first as an I got that- that was awarded first, but I actually pursued them at the same time as part of a joint degree program.

Sujani 18:53
Okay, so you kind of doing your research and you’re discovering that you could actually go to school for these two degrees. And you know, the intersection of MPH degree and JD could be a potential career path for you. And you kind of like made that connection very early on, it seems.

Dawn 19:11
Yes, I did work in the lab for a couple of years, while just kind of getting my bearings and enjoying that work before I really started looking into school. But maybe it was only two years because I started law school in 2009. Now I think about it, and I started in a lab in 2007. So I must have applied- Yeah, I guess it was really early in the time that I was in the lab. And I thought about that in a long time.

Sujani 19:32
I don’t know my universities in the US well enough, but it sounds like your MPH came from the University of South Florida and your JD degree was from Stetson University. Is that around the same area or are they at two different schools?

Dawn 19:46
There are two different schools but they’re both in Tampa Bay.

Sujani 19:49

Dawn 19:50
And that is actually something I researched as well because there are programs that are JD MPH dual degree programs where they’re in the same school.

Sujani 19:58

Dawn 19:59
So I did look at and apply to some of those programs. And then ultimately I was living here, this was a really a second, if not third career choice in a way. And I really just ultimately made a decision about what was most practical in at the time and whether or not I felt like I could get the education that I wanted to get by staying in the Tampa Bay area where I was already really well established and had support. At the time, my father had been diagnosed with lung cancer, and was kind of in the end stages of his disease. And so one, one of the things that I thought about a lot, and that some of my friends advised me on was, what if something happens where you need to provide more support to your family, where your dad passes away while you’re in school? Where do you think you will feel best supported in terms of where you are in school? So that also helped me to make a decision to stay in the Tampa Bay area, in addition to the program’s themselves, but I definitely those personal factors came into play.

Sujani 19:59
Yeah, no, I think, you know, before we started recording, I was telling you that I have probably spoke to two other lawyers with kind of the public health background this week. And it’s interesting that each of you came with a different path. I think one of them had the MPH degree first, and then went on to pursue a JD degree. The other one with a JD degree came first worked in like Social Justice background, and then decided to pursue an MPH degree and then yours is this dual degree where you went to, you know, get both of those degrees or training at the same time. And so for you, not that you kind of have gone through the other two paths, but because you had done both of those degrees together, what are some kind of like pros and cons that you could offer? For any of our listeners kind of thinking, yeah, maybe I would consider doing a JD MPH kind of together at the same time?

Dawn 21:47
Definitely, the first thing I would say is look at the structure of the program, as you have said, I will just kind of if something seems like the right idea, or and it feels like it’s a good fit, I’m gonna go for it. I will say that I was the first student to go through the joint program here. And that was a little bit of a challenge, because they were still trying to work out what credits would transfer, what classes I could take, that would count for both programs, and all of those kinds of logistical or operational things that really hadn’t been decided as far in advance as they should have been. And so I was kind of helping them to figure it out. So I would just say, be very clear on you know, how this program is structured. And whether or not you think it could meet your needs, I really don’t know that I would have done it differently in terms of pursuing a JD, and then an MPH or vice versa, with the exception that I could see myself having done an MPH working in the lab being exposed to public health. And in working with people who were all on public health in some way, I could totally have seen that happening. And I actually did think about what if I just get a master’s in public health. But ultimately, because I knew I wanted to work in policy or government affairs in some way. That was really what pushed me to just say, I could just do both of these degrees and be on that path.

Sujani 22:59
Did you not think that, you know, maybe I could just work in policy without a JD degree, for example? Or was there something more that was pushing you for a law degree? And, you know, I think back to your first job at the children’s home, or you’re upset with the system, and despite not, you know, having worked in a legal role, I’m sure you were exposed to a lot of legal issues, right? And is that kind of the reason that you said, Okay, maybe a JD degree is going to help me with the role that I eventually want to have?

Dawn 23:32
Yes, that was a heavy influence, because I actually did spend a lot of time in the court system in in that role, particularly as a case manager, I had to give judicial reviews, which were written. And then I also had to go to court in front of the magistrate and present updates on my cases. I also had to be in court when we were adjudicating kids dependent on the state, when we were terminating parental rights, I had to be in all of those processes. And I also had kids who were involved in the juvenile justice system. So I would often go to court hearings for them, sometimes as the only person there with them, you know, they didn’t have parents, or foster parents or anybody else, you know, necessarily in court with them. So that definitely influenced me to thinking that law as a tool to achieve better outcomes. I also thought about people who are in positions that I thought I might be interested in, and I had done a lot of, I had started to get into more political volunteer work around that time. And so a lot of the people who I knew who were doing the kind of work that I thought was interesting, were lawyers who were working in this government or political space. And so that also influenced my thinking that ultimately I think the education and the path of going through law school and learning to analyze things in the way that you learn in and in, in law school. And the way that you learned to write in law school I felt ultimately would serve me in a career where I wanted to shape public policy.

Sujani 24:56
When- when I think about the that first job that you have and then the path that you’re on now it kind of like, makes clear sense. It looks like it’s such a linear path and I can follow along. But then this piece about like microbiology, I keep thinking, was that kind of to pursue a small interest that you had, because I don’t think you kind of ever went back into the laboratory, did you?

Dawn 25:22
I did not after I graduated. And while I was studying for the bar, I continued to work in the lab. And then after I passed the bar, I am while I was looking for full time employment, I worked in the lab. And then after I left there, I was done, I ended up working in the health department being placed in health department after that as part of a fellowship. And I haven’t gone back, I do miss those lab days immensely. But really, it was something like I said, I needed to find a way to survive and support myself, while I tried to figure out what I wanted to do with my career. And it ultimately, it was a great decision and helped expose me to lots of different options. And I had a very supportive work environment. And so I think, you know, it helps me along on that path.

Sujani 26:06
Yeah. And it kind of like helped you discover public health as well. So, you know, you could say that the laboratory, you know, in that work that you did kind of set you on the path that you are on now.

Dawn 26:16
Oh, absolutely. I give all the credit to that lab really, for helping just to change my whole trajectory.

Sujani 26:23
And yeah, I like to think that there’s never bad experience, I think every experience that you have, is going to kind of add up. And it’s part of the puzzle pieces of figuring yourself out.

Dawn 26:35
I agree. I said this something very similar to someone the other day, something happened that was I wasn’t particularly happy about and they were like you, I’m sorry, you had to go through that. And I said, I know, every experience is valuable. You know, every it really is, I mean, they shaped who you are, how you respond to future events, and issues. And even the not great event, there are things that happen are an important part of who we are.

Sujani 26:57
Yeah. And part of figuring out what you enjoy doing is kind of also knowing what you don’t want to kind of spend the rest of your life working on or in, the environment that you’re in, and the people that you’re surrounded by, and you could enjoy the work, you could see yourself kind of doing it for a few years. But you know, you don’t envision kind of growing in that space. And that’s okay. And I think that’s part of the growth period as well.

Dawn 27:22
Well, the advantage of having done so many different things in my time is that I 100% agree, I think one of the most important things that you can know is what you don’t want to do. And so those are some of the past experiences I’ve had job experiences have definitely helped me also to identify what I like and don’t like in a manager, what I like and don’t like in a work environment, you know, the kind of work that brings me joy, versus what doesn’t bring me joy. And those are all valuable experiences to have.

Sujani 27:49
Yeah, I had a job kind of as an admin assistant in a lawyer’s office during my undergrad years. And I remember kind of leaving that to pursue my public health degree in the lawyers working for she’s like, are you sure you don’t want to pursue laws? Like 100%. Thank you for helping me figure this out.

Dawn 28:08
Yes, I love that. I love that I did a Federal Judicial internship in the summer while I was in law school, and a lot of people want to do that you want to clerk for a federal judge when you get I really appreciated the experience. But it became very clear to me at the end of that, that that was not what I wanted to be doing.

Sujani 28:27

Dawn 28:27
Because I was going to be sitting, you know, it was going to be in an office or in a- in a courthouse right all the time. It was I was gonna be doing a certain kind of work a certain kind of way, all the time. And I like a lot of variety. And I like interacting with people. And I like getting out and making connections. And I just felt like that was just not something that you’re just not something you’re doing as a clerk.

Sujani 28:47
Yeah, yeah.

Dawn 28:48

Sujani 28:49
I think that’s that’s a good segue into kind of what you did end up pursuing once you did graduate from law school.

Dawn 28:57
Yes. So I looked at a lot, I looked at it, I applied to a lot of jobs, no lie. But one of those things I applied to was a fellowship in public health law. And I interviewed and placed with so we had an opportunity to choose from five locations and ranked them. And I matched with two of them, one of them being Santa Fe, New Mexico, in New Mexico, which is where I’m from. And so that was really exciting. To me, that was ultimately the place I got sent to. I got a position as a public health law Fellow at the health department working in a joint position that was between the Office of General Counsel and the Office of Policy and accountability. And so I got to do some really cool work there. One of the coolest things that I got to do was work on updates to the Public Health Act in the state of New Mexico, which we introduced at the end of my fellowship time in the legislature. It was not successful that first year, which was 2015, but we reintroduced it in 2017 and was successfully passed and signed into law. So that was probably just a highlight of my career experience.

Sujani 30:01
Yeah, that’s, that’s something you can point to and say I helped create that.

Dawn 30:05

Sujani 30:06
Yeah. So you spent a year in that fellowship, and then ended up becoming a deputy director.

Dawn 30:14
Yeah, so what happened at the time is they told us, you know, at the start of the fellowship, expect not to have a job at the end of it. I mean, they were very clear, they’re like, you’re gonna need to find something to do. So they really wanted to keep me on in New Mexico and have me remain a part of the team and around the same time that was completing my fellowship, someone who was the director of Health Equity at the time, was retiring. And they kind of called reclassifying a position to create a Deputy Director for the Office of Policy accountability, slash director of health equity position, the health equity position was in the policy office. And I applied and interviewed and was selected for that role. So that’s how I ended up kind of getting a permanent position in the Health Department.

Sujani 30:58
I know kind of, you know, different states do it differently. And- and also that you had a number of different kind of titles at the New Mexico Department of Health. But for someone who’s kind of interested in public health law, and especially, you know, working in a- in a state health department, could you maybe kind of just paint a picture of what that role could look like, with the caveat that, you know, probably differs from state to state?

Dawn 31:24
Yes, in general, I think you can do a couple of different roles as a lawyer in a health department. So one is you can be assigned to the Office of General Counsel, you can be an assistant general counsel, you could be the general counsel for the health department. And those attorneys may or may not have public health background, and we had a really large health department. And so we had a larger team. And so we had attorneys whose job was just contracts, and just HR. And those are not necessarily public health, folks. But technically, those are public health lawyers, because they are providing, you know, attorney services in a health department. The other thing you could do is one of the things, what I ended up doing really was working in the policy office. And so that is helping to shape the policy agenda of the Health Department. I also manage the legislative session. So many, if not most health departments have an office like that, especially at the state level, maybe less so at the local health department level, but have a position that is dedicated to policy and the legislative agenda for the health department. So you can be something like a policy director or legislative director, you don’t even necessarily have to be in health department to do that. So you can be a legislative director in another setting with your law degree. So you’re doing legislative analysis or legislative development, the other thing you can do is just be in a leadership role. So ultimately, I did end up in a leadership position. And I do think that my degrees in my backgrounds helps me to get into those positions. And so if you’re interested in leadership, and you have advanced degrees, it could be a JD, right? But you could have a PhD or some or, or some other advanced degree, those ultimately, I think, can help you if you want to move along a leadership path.

Sujani 32:59
You know, you spent about five years the Department of Health and kind of going back to that point we chatted about where, once you knew something was right for you, you kind of just took that leap and went ahead. curious to hear, like why you ended up leaving the state health department to then, you know, pursue a role at the Foundation for Healthy St. Petersburg. And when you kind of knew that, you know, maybe it was time for change for you?

Dawn 33:27
Well, I got to do a lot, as you noted many amazing things while I was at the health department, several different roles and titles, and they were all really valuable and incredible experiences. What ultimately led to change is the administration changed, we had a new governor elected. And that means a whole new team of people coming in and a whole new structure. Often what happens in an administrative change is I was in a politically appointed position, people are in those positions are asked to resign. And some of them are kept on and some of them most of them are probably not. And I was eventually brought back on in the Health Department under the new governor in a role that I had previously held, which was the policy director. And I really appreciated that because I love legislative work and talk about knowing something you’re passionate about. I love that. I love legislative analysis. I love the whole process of creating law. So I was happy to work for Governor Lujan Grisham and get to help continue to direct that process in the health department for that very first legislative session when she was governor. After the session ended, I really started to think about one I was in a position that had already done right Been there done that learns what I wanted to learn from that role. And also thinking about how do I ultimately continue to advance I wanted to build on the experience I had of being in an executive leadership position. And I didn’t think staying in that position that I was in was the way to do that. So I started seeking out other opportunities interested in coming back to Florida, which is where I had lived most of my adult life. And that’s how I ended up finding the position at is the foundation.

Sujani 35:01
There, you kind of started off with some kind of legal work. And then you moved into a Chief Innovation Officer for for a short period. But what kind of drove that that role? I suppose just given that you weren’t, I’m assuming it didn’t have much kind of legal work?

Dawn 35:18
No, it didn’t, I ended up not doing a lot of legal or policy work. That was good. So this is also I think, trusting your instincts kind of situation, I really was interested in after I left the health department and continuing to build on my legal and policy work and experience. And I thought that this role with the foundation was going to help me to move further on that path. Ultimately, it wasn’t I was not really doing legal work or policy work, I was doing a lot more data and evaluation, overseeing the IT team, overseeing the evaluation team for the foundation, and then helping with a lot of the events and trainings that we developed, which is all very meaningful. And I really enjoyed that and worked with a great team of people, it just was not really what I wanted to be doing.

Sujani 36:02
Again, kind of paints that picture of, you’re very quick to tune into that, and then make a decision and kind of like, move forward. And I think I’m just picking that up throughout every part of your journey. And I guess feeling inspired myself, because I’m not someone who can do that very easily. I think I do a part of it when I absolutely want to, but I can hesitate and get into this, like analysis paralysis mode. And yeah, no, just I think, you know, maybe there’s also things that we read, especially when it comes to like, you know, career. There’s, there’s all this like advice in blogs where they say, you know, make sure it doesn’t look like you’re jumping around or make sure that you know, your employer, when they ask you why did you leave a job in like, eight months- It’s not because it wasn’t something that you enjoyed. And I think like there’s all these blogs that provide that sort of advice, and I don’t know what your thoughts are on that.

Dawn 36:56
I think the best advice I ever got about how to explain your talk about your job history in an interview is just to know yourself in your path really well. You just have to be able to answer those questions. And obviously, there’s nuances and some of the reasons that people leave positions. And so you have to, you do have to put thought into how you explain it. But I think just you know, really knowing yourself and ultimately what led to those that decision, I feel 100% comfortable saying that this was not the right fit for me. And I think anyone who’s in a position where you’re in a job, that is really not the right fit, don’t, it’s easy to feel stuck, I have felt that way in my time. But I think you have to also kind of identify solutions, you know, how do you get unstuck, and go with it and be just be able to explain, like, that’s what you want it to do. So I think just looking at things like gaps in your resume or short positions, but I’ve seen people who have set a series of positions where they stayed two years, is just say, you know, what, what did you get out of those experiences and be able to articulate that?

Sujani 37:54
Yeah. And I think like, you know, just taking your kind of career path that is as an example. And you look at your your history, you can see that you were, you know, with organizations for five plus years. So it does show that you can commit to something and you can put in work to grow in that organization, it was just like this period, or this one role that you thought you were gonna like, didn’t fit, it wasn’t a good fit, and then you decide to make that decision to move away from it. So I think, you know, to your point about just making sure you’re able to paint that picture clearly for the employer.

Dawn 38:29
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, ultimately, I think as someone who’s interviewed people, many times, I really just want to know, how does what you have experienced in the past? How does that help you to perform this job that you’re applying to do? How does that help you be the right fit for this role? That’s what I want to know.

Sujani 38:43
Yeah, absolutely. I guess where you are, now you are enjoying it, because you’ve been there for two plus years, that the network for public health line, and you’re the director there, so maybe you could tell us a bit about the work that you’re doing there?

Dawn 38:57
I would be happy to. I do love it. I am the director of the southeastern region. So we have five regions. I’m one of five regional directors, and we have a national director, but we’re currently in the process of hiring a new national director. So basically, the network for public health law, we provide legal technical assistance to a wide variety of public health partners and practitioners, from health departments to you know, at the state and local, tribal level, community based organizations. We have federal partners, academics, we work with a wide variety of partners. And the legal technical assistance that we provide comes in different forms, but it’s research and analysis. We do writing from develop resources. We also do trainings and workshops, and we do consultation on specific issues. And also importantly, we help to draw connections between people. So we have a pretty deep team of attorneys who specialize in different areas of public health. So going back to the earlier part of our conversation, and if we don’t have that expertise on our team, we definitely know someone who does and so we also connect people with expertise at are looking for.

Sujani 40:01
You know, when you kind of reflect on this journey that you’ve taken, Dawn, what kind of comes to mind? And I think you you sort of alluded to it very early on where you said, maybe, you know, maybe I could have taken, alright, maybe this is how I understood it, but a more direct path. But yeah, when you when you kind of look, look back to what you’ve done, and where you’ve gotten to, what sort of reflections come to mind?

Dawn 40:26
Well, one thing is, I think that having such a diversity of life experiences has helped me to be a better person, and also a professional, I have been able to take everything I’ve experienced in different professional settings and just in my life, and I think apply them to every new situation that I’m in. And so I’m really grateful that I’ve had those experiences. Not all of them were great, but, but a lot of them were and I think ultimately, that has helped shaped me, I think it makes me a better lawyer and public health professional having seen you know, what people experienced in their lives in their homes. Having experienced some of those challenges myself, I think, having gone through different types of public health, you know, so working in a laboratory, working in a policy setting, I did you know, field placement in an Advocacy Institute, I think all of those things have shaped also my perception of public health. And part of why I feel like I was successful at the health department was that I had experience in all these different aspects of public health, that helps develop me as a leader of programs, because I had exposure to all those different kinds of programs.

Sujani 41:29
I think it’s such a good point where you bring up the life experiences, I think we don’t give enough credit, we kind of keep career separate from life, and don’t really pull on the life experiences or even talk about it as much as we shared in kind of like interviews or even to reflect back and think you know, I think I did such a great job in this role, or in this project, not only because of the training and like the professional experience I have, but also some of the personal experiences that has shaped me to be who I am to be so resilient to have these, you know, tools and resources to be able to navigate this situation in the way that I did.

Dawn 42:10
Oh, absolutely. I agree. And I think people need to talk about that more, you know, you have skills that are beyond what you’ve learned in school, and what you’ve learned in a prior position. And really being able to understand that about yourself and say what those skills are, and see what those traits are about yourself, I think is really important.

Sujani 42:27
Yeah, I remember kind of like one of my first or one of my interviews, after my master’s, I think there was a question about, tell us a situation where you know, you were under stress, and you had to kind of still perform or execute on a plan. And I didn’t really think too much about it. And I couldn’t come up with a professional experience that ended up coming out with a personal experience where my grandfather had suddenly passed away. And because like, my mom and her sisters, were just devastated. I ended up planning all of their kind of flight trip to Sri Lanka, and, you know, just had to like coordinate everyone’s passports and flight tickets and leaves and things like that. So, ultimately, you know, I got the job. But now that I think about it, I didn’t, you know, intend on showcasing my personal experiences here. But I kind of did it out of necessity, because I didn’t have any professional experience to to speak about it. But I think that just goes to show that employers do certainly value that as well.

Dawn 43:25
Yes, and I do think it’s good. I always tell people to prep what you think might be interview questions, like you should have a list of challenges you’ve experienced and how you’ve overcome them, you should have a list of your successes, you know, you should have a list of traits, like how would you describe yourself? And also, how would other people describe you? I think you just you need to have stock answers that you obviously you’re not going to read them from a paper when you’re in an interview. But I think taking the time to go through them and think really about them and think about those examples can really help you just be more prepared when you get to that stage where you are interviewing and need to give something on the spot.

Sujani 44:00
Absolutely. Yeah. So when you think about the future, Dawn, what’s kind of you know, out there for you in terms of your your next goals and what’s exciting for you?

Dawn 44:11
I think that I’m excited to step more into work in health equity and social justice. And it’s kind of funny, because when I started in the role as Director of Health Equity at the health department many years ago now, I really sometimes thought was like, Is this the path for me, I asked myself that a lot. And then I ended up in a series of positions where that is just a core part of my work. And so in some ways, I say, Okay, I’m listening universe. Maybe this is what I’m supposed to be doing. But I really do love this work. And I really feel like it’s where I personally can make a difference and apply my particular set of skills and experience and knowledge to these really important areas where we’re trying to reduce health disparities and achieve equity. So I’m excited to get to just really do more in that space. I also have really been- So it’s also partly a lesson learned and partly something I am looking forward to is thinking more with intentionality. I have gone with my gut a lot, I have trusted things to work out. But I also think it’s really important to have some intention behind your choices. And somebody asked me when I joined a job one- one time when I had started a position, she asked me, you know, what, what was your plan? Like how long did you want to stay there when you joined that job? And I had never asked myself that question before. But I think it’s a great question. When you- when you join an organization, what’s your plan, I think some people go into a job and say, I’m just going to do this job, as long as it works out. And that could be 20 years, it could be two years. But I think going into it saying, I want to be in here this amount of years. And this is what I hope to get from it is great, you can deviate from that. And I certainly hope that you do and that you’re flexible with your experience. But I think having more thought about what it is that you want to do and accomplish. And the time that it would take you to do that in that role is really helpful. So I am thinking a little bit more about that intentionality of career path, especially as I get further along in my career, thinking about the things that will lead me ultimately into more leadership positions, more opportunity to impact systems, which is really what I, you know, really want to be doing and feel very passionate about.

Sujani 46:17
I think there’s just so much to talk about when it comes to, you know, thinking about your career path with intention and intentional planning. I think I talked about it in terms of like, you know, the terminology of having a strategy for your career, you don’t necessarily have to have every single step figured out, because I think there there definitely requires some flexibility. But maybe that’s- that’s a conversation we can have on another episode, especially not that you’re going to be thinking about it some more. And perhaps in a few months or so you’ll have a bit more to talk about that topic.

Dawn 46:51
Thanks. I agree. I would love to reconnect on that. I think there’s so much to talk about. And I agree with having a strategy, but also a strategy that allows for flexibility.

Sujani 47:01
Absolutely. Thanks so much, Dawn, for joining me this evening, just to chat about your career and glad to hear that we’ll be speaking again about another topic that I love, which is you know, just planning and strategizing. So this is not a goodbye. So everyone will be hearing from Dawn again.

Dawn 47:18
Well, thank you, Sujani for having me on the podcast. This has really been so enjoyable, I could definitely watch out because when we get into talking about planning, I could talk all day.

Sujani 47:28
So awesome.

Hey, I hope you enjoyed that episode. And if you want to get the links or information mentioned in today’s episode, you can head over to And we’ll have everything there for you. And before you go, I want to tell you about the public health career club. So if you’ve been looking for a place to connect and build meaningful relationships with other public health professionals, from all around the world, you should join us in the public health career club. We launched the club with the vision of becoming the number one hangout spot dedicated to building and growing your dream public health career. And in addition to being able to connect and build those meaningful relationships with other public health professionals, the club also offers other great resources for your career growth and success, like mindset coaching, job preparation, clinics, and career growth strategy sessions in the form of trainings and talks, all delivered by experts and inspiring individuals in these areas. So if you want to learn more or want to join the club, you can visit our page at And we’ll have all the information there. And you know, as a space that’s being intentionally curated to bring together like minded public health professionals who are not only there to push themselves to become the best versions of themselves, but also each other. And with that, I can’t wait to see how this is going to have a ripple effect in the world as we all work together to better the health of our populations and just have immense impact in the world. And I hope you’ll be joining us in the public health career club.


About the Show

PH SPOTlight: Public health career stories, inspiration, and guidance from current-day public health heroes

On the show, Sujani sits down with public health heroes of our time to share career stories, inspiration, and guidance for building public health careers. From time to time, she also has conversations with friends of public health – individuals who are not public health professionals, but their advice and guidance are equally important.

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