For Cara Sammartino, Public Health is Personal

September 2021 Update: The grant proposal submitted to the National Institute of Health (NIH), described below, was approved. A grant of more than $300,000 was awarded to Associate Professor Samantha Rosenthal, Associate Professor and Department Chair Cara Sammartino,Ph.D., and Associate Professor Jonathan Noel, Ph.D., to study the relationship between mobile screen time and depressive symptoms among college students.

Johnson & Wales students all come from different backgrounds, have different experiences, and want to do different things. But the majority of them have a similar end-goal for their careers: they want to do good in the world.

Enter the JWU Public Health program, where students prepare for careers to improve the health of families and communities. Cara Sammartino, Ph.D., M.S.P.H, Department Chair and Associate Professor, has led the program into tremendous growth and has provided countless students with opportunity in Rhode Island and beyond.

Sammartino had no plans for a career in academia, even while studying to earn her Ph.D. at Brown University. “I had already taken a job as a state analyst with Rhode Island and had been working for 11 weeks when I got the call from JWU.” The call was for Sammartino to help develop the Public Health program, given her research and expertise. Intrigued, Sammartino agreed, and by the winter trimester she had a full-time job offer at JWU.

“I grew up in Rhode Island,” she says. “I have relatives that went to Johnson & Wales. I didn't really think of it as more than culinary and hospitality. And once I saw what was happening, I saw there was tremendous growth, and I liked the direction the university was going in.” Over four years later, she maintains it was one of the best decisions she ever made.

Sammartino is a born-and-bred Rhode Islander and never sees herself leaving. “I love everything about this state,” she says. “My friends always joke that I should work for the Chamber of Commerce, or go into politics.”

Her passion for the state extends into her work and research. She has collaborated with local stakeholders from the perspective of the state and also from the perspective of private insurers, working with the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS), Xerox Healthcare, the Office of Health Insurance Commissioner (OHIC), and the Rhode Island Senate Policy Office of the General Assembly.

Sammartino with husband Dan and cat KittyIn addition to working with public stakeholders and prior to entering doctoral work at Brown University, Sammartino worked for Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island in their Health and Wellness institute for five years, assessing program evaluation data and developing return on investment strategies for wellness programming.

Sammartino brings this experience with research and data into the classroom at JWU, teaching students not only how to analyze data but also how to explain that data to community members. The first full class for the Public Health program is set to graduate this spring, an exciting milestone for the program and for Sammartino. “I absolutely love these students,” Sammartino says. “They work really hard, and they really want to do good things.”

One of the reasons for the program’s growth (the program now serves nearly 300 students and is only four years old) can be attributed to growing awareness for what public health really is. “I think students want to do good in the world, and they associate doing good with health,” Sammartino says.

Most students initially come in with ideas of becoming a physician assistant or going on to medical school. But then, Sammartino notes, the lightbulb moment happens. “And then they realize — public health is everything,” she says. “You walk on a sidewalk. If you live in a neighborhood that doesn’t have safe sidewalks, you can’t get out and take a walk. If there’s violence in the community and you don't feel safe, you can’t get exercise. Likely there aren’t healthy grocery stores. Public health impacts every single thing that we do.”

With such a wide array of options in the public health field, the department makes sure students don’t feel lost at sea. “We have a lot of free electives,” Sammartino says. “A lot of our students take courses in economics and political science, and I kind of push them to think about what they want, because I want them to explore different areas that they didn't realize actually touch on health.”

The department is small by nature and very collaborative. The three instructors — Sammartino, assistant professor Jonathan Noel, and assistant professor Samantha Rosenthal — are not only able to share ideas for the curriculum, but also work together on research.

The department created an undergraduate research center, where student interns work on research with Rosenthal, director of the center, Sammartino and Noel. Most recently, the department has submitted a proposal for a research grant with the National Institutes of Health. The research proposal looks at mobile phone use and screen time, and how that’s associated with depressive symptoms among college students. If they receive the grant, the project would be funded for three years, giving students an opportunity to do hands-on research with public health data on a topic that is very relevant to them.

Sammartino, Rosenthal, and Noel

Despite the tremendous amount of work being done inside and outside of the classroom, Sammartino maintains a healthy work-life balance and spends her downtime in very active ways. She is an avid surfer, having worked at a local surf shop for over a decade. In addition, she belongs to a golf league and spends as much of her time outside as she can, enjoying all the Ocean State has to offer.

Sammartino’s passions for her home state and for her career have found a happy intersect; in addition to her own research and work, she is now preparing students to enter into careers that will help the local community become safer, healthier, and sustainable for years to come.

Related Reading: Samantha Rosenthal Awarded NIH Grant to Study Effects of Smartphone Screen Time