Volume XX | Issue 2 | Fall 2020
Charity Dean freely shares stories of the failures that led to her success today as a respected public health expert. "The beauty of failing is you aren’t afraid of it anymore," she says.

Scholar played key role in public health

Charity Dean led the virus testing task force for California

As one of the top leaders for the state of California’s early response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ford Scholar Charity Dean, M.D., is a study in success. As she regularly shares with new Ford Scholars, her secret is simple: She has failed all the way to where she is now.

Dean always knew she wanted to become a doctor, but growing up in Junction City, she says she had few academic opportunities and was discouraged by school counselors to pursue a career in medicine. She remembers sitting at the kitchen table with her mom, looking at the letter announcing her Ford scholarship and realizing she was holding her future.

After graduating from high school in 1995, Dean attended the Ford Scholars banquet at the Benson Hotel in Portland. “Kenneth Ford was there,” she remembers, “and they took a photo of him handing me my award.” That photo, she says, is still on the wall in her house. 

She then entered the pre-med program at Oregon State University. It didn’t go well.

“I was a terrible failure,” she says today. “I got Cs and Ds in science classes. It was not uncommon for Ford Scholars, who often come from poor, rural communities and can’t pay for tutors and all the stuff that comes with privilege. Now that I am a privileged doctor raising kids, boy do I get it.”

At the end of the first year, Dean met with the OSU counselor, who told her she had no chance to get into med school and removed her from the premed program. 

Inspiration needed

Dean received the inspiration she needed to take the next step at Kenneth Ford’s funeral. “I heard all the stories of his hard work,” she remembers. “So, I made the decision that I would not give up my dream.”

It took Dean an extra year of schooling to get her GPA up, and she graduated from OSU in 2000 with a degree in microbiology. A longtime obsession with pandemics led her to attend medical school at Tulane University; she earned a medical degree and a master’s degree in public health.

After a stint in West Africa doing tropical surgery, she did her residency in Santa Barbara, California, ending up in public health.

“I loved working in county clinics, which serve the most vulnerable,” she says. “Those are my people.”

In 2018, Dean became assistant director of the California Department of Public Health. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she quickly became part of the executive team that ran the entire response for the state of California. She says she often reflects on her trajectory. 

“I was kicked out of pre-med,” she says. “But here I was, number two for the state of California. I think it’s really important for students to hear about my failures as well as my successes.”

‘not afraid’

She led the state testing task force. “We devised a strategy that ended up exceeding the government goals set for us. It was a very public fail-or-succeed task,” she says. “But I wasn’t afraid to take the chance.”

And that, she says, is because she is used to failure. “I am familiar with the taste of dirt in my mouth. The beauty of failing is you aren’t afraid of it anymore.”

Dean resigned as assistant director for the California Department of Public Health in June, during a time of public backlash against restrictions and mask requirements. 

“I felt that strong nudge that it was time to pivot,” she says. “My intention was always to have an impact on protecting the community and the country, and that’s what I intend to continue to do.”  


Scholars respond to COVID-19


Bory Kea, Ford Scholar 

Class of 1998, Portland

OHSU’s Dr. Bory Kea is active with the Women in Science group, which sought mask donations to give to patients in need. She is also involved in multiple COVID-related studies, including rapid COVID diagnostic test development, presence of COVID with mask reuse, evaluation of the public’s mask-wearing behavior, health care worker’s use of PPE, a Phase 3 COVID vaccine study, and lastly, a randomized-controlled trial of convalescent plasma for the treatment of mild COVID. 

Ali Lape, Ford ReStart Scholar

Class of 2016, Corvallis

When Oregon hospitals limited the number of people in labor and birthing rooms, Ali Lape, a certified doula, began working as field team lead for the TRACE COVID-19 study out of Oregon State University. In one instance, the data she collected from Hermiston showed 17% community prevalence of COVID-19 with only 20% of those people having symptoms. Oregon Gov. Brown used the data to guide decisions about contagion control in Umatilla County. 

Melissa Bellm, Ford Scholar 

Class of 2002, Jackson/Josephine counties

As the manager of quality and accreditation for Asante Health Systems, Melissa Bellm staffed Asante’s drive-through testing clinic, fit tested her fellow health care workers with the N95 mask, and supported inpatient units and patients at the bedside. She is now also the interim manager of infection prevention. 

Return to Issue Index
Share this: