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Responding to a Changing World Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Katherine Ciacco Palatianos

March 08, 2021
by Colin Poitras

When Dr. Katherine Ciacco Palatianos, M.D., M.P.H. ’86, first joined the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS), she felt as though she was one of just a few women in uniform working in a sea of white men.

But over her 27 years of active duty service in the PHS Commissioned Corps, Ciacco Palatianos said she witnessed tremendous change. She watched proudly as Antonia Novello was sworn in as the first woman – and first Hispanic – U.S. Surgeon General in 1990. M. Jocelyn Elders (1993) and Regina Benjamin (2009) would follow.

She noticed a steady increase in women and people of color working at all levels of public health across the United States. Although the top echelons of leadership — especially in private industry — remain disproportionately male, Ciacco Palatianos said newly appointed admirals in the PHS are just as likely to be female as male these days.

“Public health is now fully populated by the whole rainbow,” Ciacco Palatianos said. “And that is so very important to the diverse people we serve and essential to balancing all peoples’ needs and health priorities.”

Diversity, compassion and respect translates into better public health care.

“One of my earliest lessons from my time at the Indian Health Service was that just as all problems are local — experienced by individuals and families, not by the institutions that serve them ­— all solutions are local,” Ciacco Palatianos said. “The best decisions are ones that are made by empowered local communities that must always maintain their authority and autonomy for interventions to be effective.”

Ciacco Palatianos came to the Yale School of Public Health (YSPH) in the mid-1980s, a time when the world was very much in turmoil as it is today.

The United States was grappling with a burgeoning AIDS epidemic. A gas leak from a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India killed or severely injured hundreds of thousands of people and a reactor explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant put the world on edge and turned a city of 50,000 people into a toxic wasteland.

“The world was becoming smaller,” said Ciacco Palatianos, who earned her medical degree at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in 1991. “Day-to-day hazards were becoming more widely acknowledged but unacceptable, and public health was on the New York Times front page every day.”

The Yale School of Public Health’s Environmental Health Sciences Division was evolving too, in response to a changing world. Students in the program, including Ciacco Palatianos, collaborated with faculty allies like professors Brian Leaderer, M.P.H. ‘71, Ph.D. ‘75 and Sylvia Tesh, Ph.D., and then-Public Health Chair and Professor Jan A. J. Stolwijk, Ph.D., in crafting an inspired slate of new courses that aligned with a changing world.

Basic sciences like physiology, microbiology and toxicology merged with core quantitative skills such as epidemiology, statistics, and data management to provide a more rounded and in-depth education. The school also added courses in health policy and administration – areas that today characterize many public health careers.

As part of a bold curricular reform, the students urged the school to take greater advantage of the wealth of brilliant scientists, students and alumni at Yale, as well as the university’s tremendous institutional resources, to forge a stronger and more vibrant educational path for YSPH students.

The interdisciplinary partnerships created with Yale’s schools of medicine, law, management, and forestry (now environment) have become one of the signature strengths of the Yale School of Public Health educational experience.

Ciacco Palatianos’s institutional successes at YSPH remain one of her fondest memories.

“My career has been driven by creating new matrices!” said Ciacco Palatianos, who retired as a Captain in the PHS Commissioned Corps following a diverse and accomplished career in risk management and patient safety, minority health, and occupational health.

Reflecting on her experience, Ciacco Palatianos urged today’s YSPH students to take courses that improve their quantitative skills, even if they think they won’t need them. Someday, they might. She also advised students to be prepared “to hit the ground running” when field opportunities arise as they are a great asset to any education.

“There are wonderful opportunities to learn, intervene and share for every student at Yale,” Ciacco Palatianos said. “In many ways, it's an ideal academic milieu-- you're not ‘just a student’, you're part of the profession and part of the valuable public health workforce from day one.”

Submitted by Ivette Aquilino on March 05, 2021