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Senior health scientist with the CDC draws on his American Indian heritage to address complex health issues
Story by Ann Whitcher-Gentzke; photos by Nick Burchell
In Dean S. Seneca’s world, health, science and planning converge to form the ideal career path—one that draws on his heritage as a Seneca Indian.
A senior health scientist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Seneca has traveled widely—to Ethiopia, Afghanistan and elsewhere—addressing critical public health issues. In Ethiopia, he served as a CDC volunteer, assisting the World Health Organization in its efforts to stop the transmission of polio. In 2009, when the H1N1 influenza pandemic hit the U.S., Seneca worked in the CDC’s Emergency Operations Center, making sure that state health officials had the latest information about the outbreak. “I was dealing with everything from concerns related to school closings, to lab analyses, to vaccinations, to accessibility of our national stockpile in getting vaccines out to people throughout the country,” Seneca recalls.
In his current work with CDC’s Office for State, Tribal, Local and Territorial Support, Seneca strengthens the ability of national nonprofit organizations, such as the National Network of Public Health Institutes, to address complex health challenges.
“Issues of poverty are still prevalent in Native American communities, but shouldn’t be,” he says. “Health is almost an entitlement, or a right, of Indian people in our country. This is based on treaties, trust responsibilities and many other things. If you’re addressing only health—and not education, economic development and the environment— you’re really just putting a Band-Aid on the larger problem.”
Seneca grew up in Buffalo’s Old First Ward, which has a deeply rooted Irish ancestry. “Proud as the Lord to be born in the Ward,” he says with a chuckle. After earning a bachelor’s degree in planning and environmental design from UB’s School of Architecture and Planning in 1990, Seneca landed his first job, as a data analyst for the Seneca Nation of Indians. “That experience really strengthened my passion for Indian people,” he says. Among other accomplishments, he put together a financing package so the Seneca tribe could build its first real health center. This was a time when the tribe was building its water line and before casinos were providing much-needed resources. It was during this period that Seneca stretched his interests to include public health. “I decided to combine my planning skills and training in community development with public health to create healthy environments,” he states. Seneca went on to earn two master’s degrees from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. One is in public health and the other is in urban and regional planning.
Today, Seneca is president of CDC’s American Indian/Alaska Native/Native Hawaiian Coalition, which serves as an advocate for matters pertaining to these Native peoples, and as a resource for CDC staff and management. He also is active with the UB Alumni Association’s Atlanta chapter and takes special pride in the formative role that his fraternity, Sigma Pi, has played in his life and career. Seneca and his fraternity brothers meet annually for a Buffalo Bills game and maintain an alumni club and listserv. “We have a very diverse group; I think that’s what makes our bond so strong,” he says.
Seneca is a tireless advocate for education, in general, and public health careers, in particular, among Native peoples. “Going out and promoting education within American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian communities—encouraging people and pumping them up—is a joy,” he says. “In public health, you’re never going to be a millionaire. But I think that’s my million dollars, seeing the reaction on people’s faces when they cross that stage and get that degree.”
Staying in shape
Daily workouts at the gym
Influential UB professors
Robert G. Shibley; G. Scott Danford; the late Ibrahim Jammal of the School of Architecture and Planning; the late John Mohawk, associate professor of American studies
Favorite place to study while an undergrad
Top floor of Lockwood Library
Being named a Sequoyah Fellow by the American Indian Science and Engineering Society in 2004
Last book read
“Promises to Keep: Public Health Policy for American Indians and Alaska Natives in the 21st Century” by Yvette Roubideaux and Mim Dixon
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