Dr. Charity Dean recollects on OSU career ahead of 2023 commencement


Contributed by Charity Dean

Commencement keynote speaker Dr. Charity Dean.

Nino Paoli, News Reporter

Whether it be containing a potential tuberculosis outbreak or monitoring early concerns of an international pandemic, leaping into action is something Dr. Charity Dean, the 2023 commencement keynote speaker, is not unfamiliar to.  

During her time as a public health official in California, Dean carried out the jobs her peers and superiors avoided: from extracting lung tissue from a woman’s corpse with garden shears given to her by a coroner afraid of contracting tuberculosis, to trying to reason with the American government and mitigate the impact of COVID-19 when the virus first began to spread in China. 

“Being given nothing but garden shears to do this impossible task while being surrounded by all of these people who are better-equipped and better-qualified, and really, they should be the ones doing this,” Dean said. “But my God, if no one else will grab the garden shears and start cutting, I will.”

Prior to Dean taking initiative in high-pressure situations as a public health official, she first needed to learn how to persist through hardships she endured as an undergraduate student at OSU. 

“It was at Oregon State University that I learned what I am capable of,” Dean said. “We’re all born with these dormant superpowers, but we have to go through challenging trials for the superpowers to be activated … my superpowers began to be activated while I was at Oregon State.”

Dean said she is honored to speak at Oregon State University’s 2023 commencement on June 17, as her undergraduate experience at the university was an integral part of her origin story.

Growing up in Junction City, Ore., Dean’s path to OSU was built on the belief in her potential.

“I grew up in an extremist religious environment, where academic pursuits were not encouraged,” Dean said. “The only thing that was encouraged was the church cultural belief system.”

Coincidentally, it was at church where Dean first became transfixed by communicable diseases.

At age seven, Dean and her parents attended church one night. There, a nurse missionary described their experiences in Africa, recounting the diseases they came across on the missions field. On Dean’s way back home, driving back to Junction City from Eugene, the backseat of her parents’ old sedan smelled of cat pee and must.

“It’s one of my earliest memories of childhood,” Dean said. “I remember looking out the window in the dark and saying out loud to my parents, ‘I’m going to be a doctor, and I want to learn about those scary diseases.’”

Years later, Dean would be inducted into the 1995 class of Ford scholars, only the second class of high school seniors to be funded by The Ford Family Foundation to attend college. 

She fit all the necessary criteria for the scholarship: neither of her parents went to college, her family’s expected contribution was zero, she was in poverty in rural Oregon and was committed to going to an in-state school.

“(The Fords) were intentionally looking for kids like me,” Dean said. “In other words, it was the first time that someone said to me, ‘you are not an accident, you are on purpose and we are picking you because of these things. You are uniquely qualified.’”

However, adjusting to college life with no point of reference proved difficult for Dean, and she finished freshman year on the pre-med track with a 2.8 GPA.

“I would summarize myself at that point as a colossal academic failure,” Dean said. “You can imagine what a hit that was to my self-esteem, having been a super smart kid in high school, skipped seventh grade, won the Ford Family Foundation Scholarship.” 

Dean would receive a letter from a founder of the Ford Family Foundation, Kenneth Ford, every couple of months, in which he’d send personalized messages with life advice to all of the Ford scholars.

It was only during her sophomore year at Ford’s funeral in Roseburg, where Dean would find the determination to persevere.

“This huge old church … was full of lumbermen. It was full of men in flannel shirts and suspenders and Levi’s. It was the salt of the earth, the humblest of the humble and, you know, none of those guys went to college,” Dean said.

As the men, who had worked with Ford over the years, got up one by one and began telling stories about the hardships Ford had to overcome, and how his modeled persistence encouraged them to never give up, Dean pulled out a napkin and started doing the math.

With a 2.8 GPA and having just been kicked out of the pre-med program, Dean realized she would have to change her major to microbiology, take a fifth year of undergrad and get no less than a 3.8 GPA each term to graduate with a 3.6 GPA.

Dean would go on to graduate cum laude from OSU’s Honors College in 2000, with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and minors in chemistry and French, according to an OSU press release. 

“I know (OSU) meant a lot to her because it got her out of one life and into another,” said Michael Lewis, the author of “The Premonition: A Pandemic Story,” which features Dean as a central character. “She came from a world where it was unlikely that a girl was going to go to college, and she’s obviously incredibly intelligent and her mind would have been wasted had Oregon State not existed.”

Lewis said during her time as public health officer in Santa Barbara County, Calif, in the middle of  the pandemic, Dean “lit up the whole world of … local public health, which really was the core of the American problem.” 

Dean said even now, at times, she feels as if she’s only operating with garden shears before a crowd of spectators as the founder and CEO of The Public Health Company, a program to inform people of communicable disease outbreaks and provide options to manage and mitigate the threat. 

“Somebody has to build this capability, or we fail again next time when the stakes are even higher,” Dean said. “(I have) no background in business, no background in technology, but I got something that apparently no one else has, and that’s the software product vision … for what must exist to solve this problem.” 

The PHC designed a software technology that runs on four guiding principles: speed, scalability, autonomy and trust. 

Dean said the technology has to disseminate intelligence faster than the threat moves and must be scalable across the whole world. With the exponentiality of the spread of communicable diseases and its worldwide scope, only software can meet these first two principles.

Dean emphasized the need for this technology to be independent of any association.

“I had initially thought government could build this and should build this; it became clear to me in 2020, government can’t build this, nor should they build this,” Dean said. “It had to be a private sector effort … totally autonomous, value-agnostic, politically-agnostic.”

Dean said this autonomy also aims to garner trust from decision-makers, and that the software couldn’t ever come from the government, “because there would always be 50% of the country that didn’t trust what the administration was saying.”

“Those four capabilities is what I’ve done manually my whole career,” Dean said. “I’m simply turning myself into software.”

As Dean continues to lead the development of the PHC software in Silicon Valley, she still wears her 1995 Ford Scholar ring to this day: left hand, middle finger.

Other reminders of her Oregon roots sprout up in passing logging trucks on the road and sparking conversation with any individual in a red flannel shirt and suspenders at a truck stop. 

“I’m not a beach person,” Dean said. “I like cold, rainy mountains with fir trees, I like the smell of mint fields in the summer. My dad was in agriculture, I grew up around all farmers in the Willamette Valley.”

Dean said farmers are her people.

“If I had to pick a group of people to say that’s my tribe, it would be the hard-working, poor, rural farmers, the kids that grew up on the end of dirt roads that never went to college,” Dean said. “Those are my people, that is my origin.” 

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