Universal lust for life and service drive Dr. Jason Salemi

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“I love that we public health professionals are collectively invaluable cogs in the wheel of the world’s health,” COPH grad Dr. Jason Salemi said. “We fight for the right to health for every living person on our planet, and we are charged with ensuring that those rights are not disproportionately applied to those that may be socially, economically, or otherwise disadvantaged. We fight for those who are most vulnerable. We help people to help themselves and try to create an environment for them to be successful in doing so. At our core, we serve others and simply make life better.”

Jason Salemi, PhD, MPH

Jason Salemi, PhD, MPH

The native Tampan and three-time USF grad (BS summa cum laude, MPH and PhD – plus two graduate certificates) is taking that noble public health vision to Houston, where he will be a tenure-track assistant professor with the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the Baylor University College of Medicine.

He also will be taking along a fairly astounding list of accomplishments for someone who’s just getting warmed up: more than 30 peer-reviewed publications in national and international public health and medical journals, an NIH scholarship for participation in a special initiative at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, three USF Latino Fellowships, two College of Public Health Scholarships, an Outstanding Student Merit Scholarship and the Successful Latino Student Award.

But given his level of energy and his passion for public health service, it all makes sense, and that energy and passion helped usher him through the trials of doctoral studies in conjunction with full-time employment.

“My biggest challenges were striking a work-life balance,” he said. “My work-to-play ratio seemed to approach infinity far too often, which goes against my fundamental belief about being happy and maximizing your impact in this world. For the majority of my tenure at COPH, I was employed full-time during normal business hours, and for over 12 years, I have maintained night employment at the American Cancer Society’s Benjamin Mendick Hope Lodge from 5:30 p.m. until 8:00 a.m., five days a week.

“I served as the resident night manager at this gorgeous facility, erected to provide free housing to cancer patients while undergoing treatment. I yearned to inject warmth, compassion and genuine fun into the lodge environment, which ensures that we lessen emotional burden for our patients and caregivers. At the lodge, I experienced miracles and a benevolence and compassion that are lacking in today’s society. Although I would not give up the experience for anything in the world, it was a bit overwhelming when piled on top of my professional job and academic life.”

Also trying, he said, was the year of separation from his wife, Jennifer, whom he unabashedly calls the woman of his dreams, while she completed her RDN internship in Ashville, N.C. Also a COPH grad (MPH in maternal and child health), she will be joining him in Texas and already is licensed to practice there. She may even be joining him at Baylor College of Medicine, where she is interviewing.

COPH alumni Jason and Jenni Salemi

COPH alumni Jason and Jenni Salemi

If the people he worked with in Epidemiology and Biostatistics are any indication, Baylor just did itself a big favor in hiring Jason Salemi.

“The academic community is lucky to have Jason join its ranks,” said Michelle Nash, a COPH doctoral student who worked on a grant project with Salemi.  “He truly cares about his work and his students, and is always willing to go the extra mile.  The students in Texas will have a wonderful learning experience in Jason’s classes.”

“Jason has always been very supportive and helpful to us,” said Das Pamnani, a former student and colleague. “I appreciate his practical and realistic approach to solving problems encountered in epidemiology. Despite his busy schedule, he has always been ready to help and provide guidance. I wish him the best for the new faculty position. He is one of the brightest and nicest epidemiologists, and I have no doubts that he will be an exceptional faculty member.”

Another former student and colleague, Rema Ramakrishnan, called Salemi no less than “a great teacher, advisor and student advocate, a storehouse of knowledge and talent.”

Asking Salemi what his dream job would be only brings out more of that boundless, passionate energy of his, as well as revealing a full-blown lust for life – his and everyone else’s.

“Admittedly, I am a sports nut. So, despite not being a ‘job,’ per se, I dream of the opportunity to have a tennis match with Roger Federer, play basketball with Steve Nash or MJ, throw ‘the rock’ with Peyton Manning, or go for a drive with Jeff Gordon. But back in the real world, it’s simpler: I just love being challenged, competing, teaching, learning, and experiencing life.”

That life experience already has included not just dreaming but running three marathons (3 hours, 17 minutes in the Disney) and falling just seven minutes short of qualifying for the Boston.

“I also love tennis, racquetball, basketball and weightlifting,” he added. “Around family and friends, I also enjoy a good game of dominoes, love a good movie, and am completely addicted to The Big Bang Theory.”

But it’s that lust for all life, that passion to serve others, that led Salemi to his career and then defined it.

“My history is derived from the cultural basket of Tampa’s Cuban and Italian ancestry,” he said. “As a third-generation Tampa native, I was born into a family with rich cultural traditions, and I’ve lived in Tampa all of my life. I have an almost innate desire to exert a positive influence on people ‘at home’ – people living in my community. The lure of medicine culminated in my application and acceptance to the USF College of Medicine in 2002.

“However, after immense reflection, and despite what I believed to be a strong passion to employ individualized patient care to treat disease and illness, I came to the realization that life as a physician would not best achieve my career and personal objectives. Despite being the single most difficult decision of my young life, my discovery of the discipline of public health convinced me that this so-called ‘invisible profession’ was the perfect platform for me to help to promote health and prevent disease.

“I am guided,” he concluded, “by a fundamental part of a beautiful Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: ‘To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived – that is to have succeeded.’”

Story by David Brothers, USF College of Public Health.  Photos courtesy of Dr. Salemi.