PhD mom Melody Schiaffino driven by ethical, moral imperatives

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“I guess you could say life-changing!” exclaimed Melody Schiaffino of her time as a graduate student at the USF College of Public Health.

A native of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Schiaffino (who lists a second hometown of Willard, Mo.) qualified the comment by noting that she gave birth to her son during that time.

Not surprisingly, she said her biggest challenge was finishing her master of public health degree with a newborn, but also said she had a “great experience” and made “great friends” at COPH and appreciates what she learned. In particular, she said, the statistics courses stood out.

Melody Schiaffino and son Rafi at the 2014 University of Florida Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

Melody Schiaffino and son Rafi at the 2014 University of Florida Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

“The stats professors are exceptional, and I continue to use the tools they showed me to further my own research,” she said.

While public health might not top the directional guess list for someone with undergraduate degrees in interdisciplinary studies and Spanish (from the University of Missouri-Columbia), Schiaffino said it made perfect sense.

“Public Health was the natural progression of my interest in health and policy,” she said. “As a PhD in health services research, my interest in clinical outcomes and policy are well served.”

Once she knew her direction, she said, USF was an obvious choice.

“The program and school location seemed perfect for what I was looking for,” she said.

While pursuing her degree, she was involved with multiple global health advocacy organizations and events. She also worked as a volunteer interpreter with Sister Sara and was instrumental in bringing a major documentary to USF in 2006.

While working on her doctorate at the University of Florida, Schiaffino was a graduate assistant PhD Fellow (Liberty Fellow). She chartered and co-founded PhDMoms with Dr. Hannah Siburt, USF professor of audiology in the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences.

“We are a student organization dedicated to supporting student-parents through their doctoral journey,” Schiaffino explained. “We were primarily focused on doctoral student-moms, the group at greatest risk for attrition, but now we include everyone because of the demand and need for a group like ours.

“We are organized around three pillars, with programs under each: (1) Academic Success (workshops and writing group); (2) Social/Family Support (student-family welcome, potlucks, socials, parenting support and childcare); and (3) Outreach and Awareness (invited talks, mentorship and education).”

The award-winning group has been featured in numerous publications, and for her part, Schiaffino has won 2013 Point of Light and 2014 Hall of Fame awards.

The look on Rafi's face says it all, he couldn't be more proud of his mom induction into the 2014 UF Hall of Fame.

The look on Rafi’s face says it all, he couldn’t be more proud of his mom’s induction into the 2014 UF Hall of Fame.

Schiaffino successfully defended her dissertation in June and will formally receive her PhD in August. Then she’s off to Southern California, where she will be a tenure-track assistant professor in health management and policy at San Diego State University. She said she plans to continue her volunteer and advocacy work, concentrating on combatting health disparities, and will fit in her salsa dancing, gardening and travel when she can.

She said her fondest wish is truly universal health care.

“It’s a rational choice when considering the economic and productivity benefits,” she said, “even if we choose to ignore the obvious ethical and moral imperatives.”

Story by David Brothers, USF College of Public Health. Photos courtesy of Melody Schiaffino.