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Jae Douglas (Ph.D., '01)
Jae Douglas (Ph.D., '01)

Jae Douglas (Ph.D., '01) says that her social work career didn't start out all that different than most. As a young Irish Catholic kid growing up in New England, she knew from an early age that she wanted to pursue a life of service helping people. After earning her MSW in 1988 and her PhD in 2001 at PSU, she's now helping people in an unusual way - as an environmental epidemiologist for the State of Oregon.

As a graduate student, Jae's field placements were with a domestic violence shelter in Hillsboro and at a non-profit community health program in Northeast Portland. In both settings, she worked with women at risk for HIV infection. These early learning opportunities turned into over 20 years working with people at risk or infected with HIV/AIDS.

"When I was 29 years old, I was hired to educate and train nurses and social workers providing case management services for people infected with HIV. My first thought was - how can I educate people who know so much more about this than I do? But then I thought like a social worker, and focused on developing the community of case managers so they could educate and train each other." She started a simple, once a week coffee clutch for social workers and nurses to talk about their work. The group instantly grew and turned into the HIV Case Management Network, a statewide group that is still active today.

The Network's biggest challenge and opportunity came when the region was awarded $1.4 million in Ryan White Title I funding. "I figured we could all fight over this funding and get small pieces, or we could come together as a group and spend these dollars to make the biggest impact." Her cooperative leadership led to the Case Management Partnership Project, a coalition of 16 organizations working together to treat those affected by HIV/AIDS.

Jae's passion for research drove her to apply to the PhD program. After a few false starts and tireless encouragement from Professor Emeritus Joan Shireman, she earned her Doctorate in June 2001, completing a dissertation about dual diagnosis of HIV and severe mental illness. She enjoyed her research so much that she applied and was awarded a Post Doctoral Fellowship at Oregon Health and Sciences University's School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine and spent her time as a fellow at Kaiser's Center for Health Research.

Jae did not expect to be an epidemiologist. Throughout her career she's always seen a natural connection between social work and public health. That passion, combined with skills in research and methodology led Jae to accept an interview in environmental health with the state. "I thought I was interviewing for an epi position in Maternal and Child Health. When I realized they were looking for an environmental epidemiologist, I asked why they were interested in me. I'd never done anything in the field of environmental health. It turned out that my social work skills, combined with my research skills and experience in community development were just what they were looking for. The environmental health piece could be learned, but skill and knowledge in working with adversely affected communities and translating research concepts to communities who are fearful, angry and frustrated is something that few people are capable of doing well," she added.

Jae joined the Office of Environmental Public Health in 2004. She's been challenged to learn about environmental toxicology and has brought her social work approach to environmental health working with communities affected by exposure to hazardous chemicals. Jae works with the Superfund Health Investigation and Education program, and is also the Principal Investigator on the View-Master Health Study; an investigation of the health effects on workers and their children from exposure to toxic chemicals used and improperly disposed.