“As a kid, you see a place through a kid’s eyes,” Cheryl A.M. Anderson says. That place for her, the place where she spent the last half of her childhood, was South Bay, a small, rural town on the far western edge of Palm Beach County, one of the richest counties in Florida. She won academic awards in writing and French, lettered in softball, and played both clarinet and bassoon with her high school band. She excelled. “Some people want to escape a place, and some people want to stay,” she says. “I was somewhere in between.” It was not until she moved away to attend Brown University that she began to realize her hometown was not necessarily like the hometowns of her Ivy League peers.

Cheryl A.M. Anderson, PhD, MPH, MS

Cheryl A.M. Anderson, PhD, MPH, MS

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“I remember walking through the Philadelphia airport in 2003,” Anderson says. “I picked up a copy of Vanity Fair. There was an article about the South Bay area, and the most memorable line was, ‘This must be the saddest place in America.’” The focus of the article: the racial and economic disparities of the town, shown through a suspected lynching that occurred in the high school class of Anderson’s younger sister.

“It was my first time seeing my home through the eyes of an outsider, seeing it fresh,” she says. “I never felt bullied, never felt afraid. You just keep your eyes open, assess the situation quickly, and you get through the day. And I do that now in my work. I can get to the bottom of a problem so fast, because I think that where I grew up, it was sometimes a matter of life and death to be able to do that.”

Anderson is now a professor and dean of the University of California San Diego Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science, where she tackles some of the most pressing problems in public health. She also serves as the Director of the UC San Diego Center of Excellence in Health Promotion and Equity, and is a fellow of the American Heart Association.

Anderson has had a number of important mentors throughout her career, but she credits two—along with her parents—for her early success. “My music teacher was a huge influence in my life,” Anderson says. “He was part music teacher, part life coach. He made sure that we were constantly fed positive messages, that we were constantly told that the world was bigger than where we currently were.”

The other was a professor in her sophomore year of college. “I sat in a class called Culture and Health with Dr. Lucile Newman. She was the director of the undergraduate public health program, a physician, an anthropologist, and epidemiologist, and I thought, that’s my role model,” Anderson says. “She’d pile us into her Subaru and take us to her house for spaghetti dinner. I could think of no better adult life.”

In her own professional life, Anderson's research as an epidemiologist focuses on the complex link between nutrition and cardiovascular diseases in underserved communities.

“We can think about it at the individual level and try to influence the personal everyday food choices that promote or harm our health. But individuals don’t exist in a vacuum,” Anderson says. We have families, friends, communities. We have school and work and should also consider how these environments promote or harm our health. If one's office routinely has healthful foods and beverages, then people are more likely to eat those.

“I use the socioecological model,” she adds, “as a framework to think through solutions that promote public health through nutrition.”

Her work as a deputy editor with Diabetes Care gives Anderson the chance to provide her perspective on the epidemiology of diabetes, and on equity in health care.

“The lifestyle health indicators for my hometown are staggering, as is the prevalence of chronic conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, and the resultant cardiovascular issues,” Anderson says. “What drives me to do this work is that I want the community where I spent much of my childhood—and others like it, no matter where they are in the country—to have a different set of outcomes. I would like for any child born in this decade, in the town I grew up in, to have access to a better food environment than was present when I was growing up. And for every child to have improved health outcomes.

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