Soloe Dennis, Public Health, MS ’07

Soloe Dennis received his B.S. in Environmental Science from UMass Amherst in 2005 and his M.S. in Public Health with a concentration in Environmental Health Sciences from the UMass Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences in 2007. He currently serves as the Regional Director of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Western Regional Health Office.

Could you describe your professional career since graduating from UMass Amherst, and how the School of Public Health and Health Sciences helped you prepare for that career?

After graduation, I was hired as a health inspector by the Holyoke Health Department. I also served as a Medical Reserve Corps Coordinator for the City of Holyoke. I then joined the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission as an Emergency Preparedness Planner for the Hampden County Health Coalition. That led to my current position as Regional Director for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Western Regional Health Office.

I can state without hesitation that the SPHHS helped me prepare for these positions because they provided me not only with the classroom knowledge but also with the real-world skills I needed to get the work done. For example, at UMass Amherst, I took a 500-level class in Emergency Preparedness. I learned the policy and the legal framework that served as a foundation for the skills required to work in the field. Just as importantly, in that class we had projects that brought these skills to life and prepared me for the work I’m doing today. As one example of this, I did some site assessment work as a class project that provided me with the hands-on experience that I needed in order to find a job in my field.

Was that 500-level class in Emergency Preparedness what sparked your interest in this field?

Yes. That class was taught by Professor Paula Stamps. I knew I was interested in that broad spectrum of environmental health when I started taking classes at the university, but from there I found a niche in Emergency Preparedness.

Can you tell us a bit more about your experience with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission?

I worked with all 19 local boards of health in the Pioneer Valley. I was the point person in charge of coordinating all of the emergency preparedness activities in the region. I would work with the local health director, the fire chief, the police chief, and all the municipal heads to coordinate all hazardous planning operations for Hampden County. It was a very interesting position. My job was to make sure that each community had an emergency plan in place – in case of a terrorism event, or a natural disaster or any other emergency that needed a coordinated response, in order to save lives and protect properties.

Did you ever have to implement any of those plans?

Yes, unfortunately. During the Springfield tornado, I assisted in the response. I also worked with various stakeholders to make sure adequate resources were brought to the county in an effective way. Also, I was very involved in the response to Hurricane Irene as well as the October snowstorm of 2011. One of the things that many people don’t understand is that natural disasters are not just about the very visible property damage. When our systems that manage to provide us with clean water, sewer services, electricity, heat, etc. fail it can and does affect the public’s health on many different and profound levels.

And then you took this position with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Western Regional Health Office. Could you describe your responsibilities here as the Regional Director and talk in general about what this office does for the community?

Our health office serves the entire western part of the state. I’m the senior DPH staff in the region, and I represent the Commissioner’s office. I work with ten bureaus within the office and multiple programs and stakeholders throughout the region. Additionally, we provide grant-funding and other resources to all of the local boards of health. In general, we provide guidance around all public health matters in Western Massachusetts.

I would imagine you manage many responsibilities which vary wildly from program to program.

This office provides many different services to the people in this region, and we actually get to see the difference we are making in people’s lives. And that’s why we’re here. We’re here to represent the people of the Commonwealth and address their public health concerns. That’s what keeps me going every day, because on any given day you will face different challenges – everything from helping people to understand health regulations to facilitating conversations around health issues and problems.

I enjoy what I’m doing. I’m a resident of Western Massachusetts. It’s a unique region and I enjoy the collaboration and partnerships.

What would you say are the greatest challenges you face here?

The greatest challenge, I would say, is having enough resources. We try to provide resources as much as we possibly can, but there are always unmet needs. The DPH has done a lot for this region, and continues to do a lot for this region, but the challenge we constantly face is how to allocate limited resources to identified or emerging problems.

Every time we hear about budget cuts, it always seems that public health programs are hit the hardest.

I must say that this year, our budget has been well-funded. We have a Commissioner who is dedicated and understands our needs and the budget for public health, with support from the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the Legislature, and the Governor, reflects that. There’s always more to be done, but we are doing well and strive to efficiently and effectively allocate resources and services.

If we could get you to reflect back on your time at UMass again, what would you say was your most memorable experience there?

Overall, the university gave me a leg up on the process because sometimes, when you are in college, you don’t know what you want to do. UMass helped guide me in the right direction. My professors and classmates were very conscientious and very professional and they helped not only through class work but by providing professional guidance. My experience was great. If I had to identify the professors that had the greatest impact on me, I would say Professor Dan Gerber and Edward Calabrese, these two helped prepare me for what I’m doing today.

You’ve been in the field for a number of years. What advice would you give current Public Health students?

I would say you’ve got to be open-minded. Be open to diversity. Try other challenges, be willing to try different things, get your feet wet. You have to look at things in terms of a series of steps, so from that perspective being open-minded is very important. You also you have to be very dedicated, willing to work hard and make sacrifices and ask questions.

Is there anything else you’d like your fellow alums to know about your life since you left UMass Amherst?

I’m married to a UMass alumna and have a two-year-old son, named Rocco. I like volunteering, I’m passionate about public health and I’m glad I make a difference in our community.