A lifelong mission to drive positive changes in public health
This interview marks the fourteeth installment in the Making an Impact series, a collection of profiles and articles introducing some of our best and brightest leaders — individuals who are making tremendous impacts in the government sectors we serve.
Uriia Underhill, Director of Public Health Epidemiology
Ms. Underhill is a Director of Public Health Epidemiology on the Maximus Center for Health Innovation (CHI) team. Prior to joining Maximus, she served as an Epidemiologist on COVID Response for multiple states and governmental organizations. Previously, she worked in infectious and oncology research and development. Uriia is an expert in public health program design and implementation as well as review and quality assurance.
We connected with Uriia, who shared her passion for helping build healthy communities by expanding access and improving equity in public health.
What drew you to the field of Public Health? When did you start in your role at Maximus?
I genuinely feel that public health was a calling put on my heart as a young child. My mother has said I’ve always been a scientist, and since I began talking, one of my favorite phrases was “what’s that?” because I just needed to know everything about anything. I wanted to fix what was broken and examine why it failed in the first place. The field of public health is so appealing to me because I feel it took all the best parts of helping people and meshed it into one field. Even though a typical job has a set of duties one must complete, there are so many focus areas that you can become a jack of all trades within public health. I find this critical because human, animal, and plant health directly affect population health and build upon each other. There typically isn’t one sole cause in diseases but a series of events or occurrences that leads to the problem. To create change, you must address those contributing causes holistically. Public health is developed around the whole person, place, or thing and everything it is involved with, and to effect change, a balance of all must be established and maintained. Since my undergraduate studies, I have worked in various public health positions and joined the Maximus public health practice in September 2021.
What excites you most about working in Public Health?
To study the health of humans, animals, and plants to create a greater good, not just today but for the future. Not just one person but putting health changes in motion could change the entire world as we know it. To be a part of families from different backgrounds and experience the treasure of cultures worldwide. To experience the fantastic things that humans have to offer on the greatest scale and help humans thrive and flourish the way we are intended is a gift to the world and benefits generations to come.
What inspired you to go into this line of work?
I watched how disease impacted my own family. My grandmother suffered from diabetes as a child. It was a familiar routine to check her blood sugar throughout the day and administer insulin when needed. As a young child, I witnessed my grandmother incoherently disoriented because of the illness and didn’t understand why she didn’t manage her diabetes correctly. It scared me and intrigued me at the same time. Why do individuals continue to do things they know are unhealthy, and why choose some habits over their wellbeing?
This experience with my own family opened many things from the holistic level of health for me, which is so beautifully encompassed in Public Health. Disease prevention and intervention but also health behaviors and efficacy. How deep this all went, who the person was, where did they come from, what established these habits (culture, environment, social aspects, family structures), what have they encountered, when did it occur, how, and of course, the best question for any scientist is WHY? This scientific curiosity trickled into every aspect of my life. I began to know these things for plants, animals, and the environment as we are all connected. You can look at a region, and typically if the humans are in bad health, so is everything else. I think every person, place, and thing deserves their absolute best chance at health and wellness, and it is my lifelong goal to help that in any way I can.
The COVID-19 global pandemic has thrown Public Health into the spotlight. What have been some of the most significant impacts on society and how we live today?
Although we hoped to be prepared for something of this magnitude, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed deficiencies in the framework for planning and implementing a response to public health emergencies.
One positive outcome was that things that were once done in the office can now be done remotely, from the comforts of our own homes. This shift helped reduce the transmission of COVID and other seasonal infections. In addition, quickly shifting to remote work forced improvements in communications, security, and technological platforms, which will be helpful to address future public health emergencies.
What are some of the biggest challenges and most significant opportunities on the horizon for Public Health?
For those with boots on the ground continuing at the pace they have been for the past two years, it will be tricky. Unfortunately, disease reporting conditions haven’t changed much in COVID since the beginning. It can be a dauntless task for those conducting interviews and contact tracing for locations that typically have high cases of contact, even more so when that is compiled with the other day-to-day tasks required to complete. From the experiences I have had in the past, it’s easy to become inundated. In contrast, it’s a great time to be in public health because, typically, the field is understaffed and overlooked. Even now, it is still understaffed, and the public spotlight is on. We must remember that we can only do so much, and it is vital to take care of ourselves in these stressful times. Truthfully, this goes for everyone. I hope this opens the minds of those looking for what they want to do and helps fill our ranks with some of the upcoming best and brightest. Our field needs it more than ever now, and I welcome the opportunity to work alongside some new thinkers to broaden the public health arena.
Why is addressing vaccine hesitancy so crucial at this stage?
Vaccines are one of the best tools available to combat diseases of different etiologies (the cause, set of causes of a disease or condition). Over the years of public health and epidemiology, we have witnessed life-saving vaccines do precisely what they were designed to do, which is help prevent and stop disease transmission, and in the case of COVID-19, help to lessen the severity of the disease. Vaccination remains one of the most highly effective tools we have available. Public health practitioners and community stakeholders must work together to address hesitancy, dispel misinformation, and temper people’s anxiety. Building trust and a positive rapport will help protect people from future biological threats.
I think every person, place, and thing deserves their absolute best chance at health and wellness, and it is my lifelong goal to help that in any way I can.
How is the Maximus Center for Health Innovation working with governments to respond to emerging infectious diseases, weather-related catastrophes, and other public health threats?
The Maximus Center for Health Innovation (CHI) promotes new models of delivering public health services integrated with the larger health ecosystem. We help governments respond to population health needs and emerging public health threats with technical assistance and data analytics capabilities. Our team is highly passionate about advancing population health, whether that means ensuring we are ready for the next public health crisis or helping to rebuild health infrastructure. We have some of the best and brightest subject matter experts on the team. We partner with federal, state, and local governments to make public health systems more robust and responsive by reinventing how services are delivered.
What role has/does technology play in improving Public Health programs?
I was personally part of the boots on the ground, working in various states during the initial emergency response of COVID. Early in the pandemic, it was apparent that the technology many local and state health departments relied upon were not equipped for the wave of data that rushed in. There was an influx of COVID test result cases and investigation data. Technology is crucial in public health to enable health departments and federal entities to track, investigate, and determine trends.
Knowing these key data points helps prevent transmission and predict future occurrences more efficiently. During the pandemic, loads of information came in, but data organization was not maintained efficiently due to volume and complexity. Often, we referred to it as drinking from a fire hose. Too much, too fast. However, having the gaps amplified showed us where technology that was already in place needed tweaks while also helping to figure out what type of systems would need to be implemented as the pandemic went along. Still, I believe it is also preparing us more appropriately for potential public health emergencies in the future.
Who in your professional or personal life has inspired you and why?
Faith and family have inspired me first and foremost. I would not be where I am today without my amazing husband, son, mother, extended family, and all the wonderful people I have encountered along the way. My experiences have shaped me in ways that are hard to explain. I am thankful, however, for the ebb and flow of life and look forward to new experiences.
What was a hard lesson you have learned professionally?
Your value increases when you do the right thing. This may not always make you the most likable, but you will undoubtedly gain respect. In the same sense saying no is essential. People will respect you more if you tell them you can’t do something, rather than taking it on and not completing it later. While we want to help and be liked, sometimes we can’t, which is okay.
If you could snap your fingers and solve one problem facing governments or agencies, what would that be?
I want to tackle world hunger. Nutrition is vital to human existence and affects every aspect of our lives. Creating environments enriched with the proper vitamins, nutrients, and minerals could drastically impact health.
What are you most optimistic about as a leader in government services?
I’m most optimistic about community and working with people to make sustainable changes. Investing my talent and expertise to enrich science ultimately allows me to be a voice for those who most need support.