Catherine Cortez

Catherine Cortez, MPH

UCLA Jonathan and Karin Fielding School of Public Health

In one sentence, what is public health to you?

Public health is a committed, collaborative effort to investigate and address the “who, what, where, when, why, and how” of achieving optimal health & well-being across all populations.

What inspired you to study public health?

As someone who valued health and serving my community from an early age, I became interested in pursuing public health during my junior year of high school. I entered UC San Diego’s undergraduate public health program feeling enthusiastic about the field, despite knowing very little about it, and through many eye-opening learning experiences/dialogues about population health and health equity in my classes, I felt inspired to dig deeper! I was especially fascinated by data and how it could be translated into policy and practice, so I chose to further specialize in Epidemiology in graduate school.

What has been the single most rewarding experience of your career/studies so far?

So far, my single most rewarding experience in public health has been working with the Virtual Training Academy (VTA) as a training facilitator and graduate researcher. In this role, I draw from my experience in peer health education and health coaching to support the skill development of COVID-19 contact tracers, case investigators, and vaccine outreach specialists in California’s local health jurisdictions, while applying my current training in epidemiology towards VTA course monitoring and evaluation efforts. I am grateful to support California’s pandemic response alongside an incredible VTA team and the learners who joined our training courses – they have kept me hopeful and inspired during a challenging time.


When I started out in public health, I wish I had known that there is no rush to have it all figured out. There is no singular template to pursue public health, and its various sub-fields and career paths are what make the field so exciting! It takes time to gain hands-on public health experience, network with peers and professionals, and ask as many questions as possible along the way. All these steps are important in reflecting upon what public health path aligns best with your interests, passions, and goals.

What do you think is the biggest challenge that the public health field should be focusing on?

A major challenge in the public health field – and a critical step we must take towards addressing structural racism as a fundamental cause of health disparities in the U.S. – is achieving racial and ethnic diversity in its workforce, academic spaces, and leadership roles. A more diverse public health workforce is better positioned/equipped to adequately respond to the needs of the populations they are serving.