Christine Jovanovic had always been interested in nutrition and health. But it wasn’t until she returned to the United States after living abroad with her family, that her interest became a full-blown passion. Shocked by the growing problem of childhood obesity in her community, she got involved with her PTA in Round Rock, Texas to improve school meals, plant campus vegetable gardens, and promote healthier school environments.
She went on to advocate for better school health programs as Healthy Lifestyles Chair for the Texas PTA, as a member of the steering committee for the Partnership for Healthy Texas, and a board member for Texas Action for Healthy Kids and CATCH (Coordinated Approach to Child Health) Champion in 2013. Jovanovic earned her M.P.H. at UTHealth School of Public Health in Austin in 2014. Currently, she’s working as a research assistant while earning her doctorate in health promotion and behavioral sciences.
How was returning to the United States a turning point for you?
When we came back five years later after living in Singapore and France, there were many things that were surprising, as if I had never seen them before. The enormous cars, parking lots and the weight of the general population really struck me, as well as the extremely poor quality of food my children were bring served in the schools. It was an important moment for me. I am so proud to be an American, to be a Texan, and to raise my kids here, but that doesn’t mean I can’t see where improvements can be made and need to be made.
What led you to pursue a degree in public health?
I recognized that I had the privilege of protecting my own children from some of the negative exposures in terms of advertising or the availability of unhealthy foods. I could provide for my kids. I knew how to cook, and how to pack a healthy lunch. But not everyone has the time and resources to do that. It seemed inherently wrong to me that your zip code determines your health and the health of your children.
Also, when I was the Healthy Lifestyles Chair for the district in Round Rock, I asked Dr. Darla Castelli from The University of Texas at Austin to talk to parents about the importance of physical activity in relation to academic achievement. To me, this was another “ah-ha” moment. It was then I realized the role of academia, and how research and teaching supports positive changes. We have to get the evidence to key stakeholders to inform policy. So, I decided at the end of my tenure as Healthy Lifestyles Chair, that my next move would be to get an M.P.H.
Why did you choose UTHealth School of Public Health in Austin?
I had served on several committees with faculty from the Michael and Susan Dell Center for Health Living at UTHealth School of Public Health in Austin, and learned about their efforts to address health disparities and improve the health of children. Then I had heard about Alexandra Evans, Ph.D. (associate director of the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Health Living) and her work with children and gardens, and food systems. I asked if I could be her student. She took me on, and I’m still her student today.
How was the transition back to school?
I’m an older student, with kids of my own, so I had a lifetime of experience coming into the graduate program. It was exciting, and a little bit daunting. I was an English Literature major in my former life, and I also have half of an MBA. I worked in financial services before I took a hiatus to care for my kids and my husband, who had a health scare. Then we lived overseas. So, it had been 23 years since I last was in school. It was definitely challenging, but my professors, colleagues and fellow students were so lovely and supportive.
What are you working on now?
I’m a research assistant for a project called Go Austin/ ¡Vamos Austin! (GAVA), an effort to improve the health of South Central Austin communities by eliminating barriers to healthy living and creating opportunities for residents to be active and eat healthy foods. I also worked with Texas Grow Eat Go to establish community gardens and expose third and fourth graders throughout the state to more fruits and vegetables.
For my Ph.D., I’m working with Dr. Evans on a project with the City of Austin’s food policy board — looking at policy level changes that support a healthier food system and diet for all Texans.
I’m also analyzing data for the School Physical Activity and Nutrition (SPAN) project that monitors obesity in nearly 20,000 school-aged children in Texas. The project’s surveillance function is so important and so complex. It’s rewarding to see the data start to yield its secrets, and tell its story about where we are and where we need to be focusing in terms of obesity rates and behavioral outcomes throughout the state. One in 10 kids in the U.S. lives in Texas, so the SPAN data is important, not just for Texas, but for the whole nation.
What’s next for you?
My goal is to focus on creating sustainable change for better health. I want to teach, because that equips the next generation with the right tools and the inspiration to drive change. I want to do research, because I think big systemic changes won’t happen unless we can provide the evidence for it. And I also would like to consult for a non-profit, because the non-profit world is an engine for change, and informs our efforts to understand what the community needs.
What advice would you give students?
There is also a certain level of humility you have to have in order to learn. You have to be able to publicly admit you don’t know something. That’s important for both students my age, and students in their 20s. Also, I would recommend getting involved with the work the school is doing, whenever possible. Make connections with your professors, and lend your assistance to their grant projects by doing data collection or analysis, or find some other way help. Getting involved really expands your ability to put what you’re learning into practice and to understand why it’s important in the first place.
What else would you like to add?
Having worked in many jobs throughout my life, one thing I realized later in life was that liking the people you work with is really important. I think sometimes when teenagers and young adults are considering what they want to do for their career, that’s not really part of the conversation. If you are going to work for 8 to 10 hours a day, it is really important to like your coworkers. One of the reasons I chose this field was because I found I really liked the people in public health.
— Written by Anissa Anderson Orr