Q&A: Dr. Cynthia Osborne, keynote speaker at the 2023 Philip R. Nader Legacy of Health Lectureship

Published: October 31, 2023

The annual Philip R. Nader Legacy of Health Lectureship honors the late Philip R. Nader (1936-2017), a teacher and community researcher whose study of health behaviors by those at each level of the school system improved the well-being of families and children. 

Funded by the Nader Endowment, the Nader Lectureship features a speaker with extensive experience in researching early life cycle health systems. This year, the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living is proud to feature Dr. Cynthia Osborne as the keynote speaker for the 8th Annual 2023 Philip R. Nader Legacy of Health Lectureship.  

Q: You used to teach middle school, and as a former teacher myself, this background piqued my interest. Tell me about your experience teaching. Why was it tough, and why was it rewarding? How did it lead you to where you are now? 

Osborne: Being a teacher was the most rewarding and toughest job I’ve ever had. I began teaching so that I could get a first-hand perspective of the struggles that students and teachers faced in schools with limited resources. I taught sixth grade in a school where over 90% of students were on free or reduced-priced lunch, and most of the children spoke Spanish as their primary language. 

I thought that a quality education was the key to a successful future, and although I still believe in the role that schools and teachers play in providing high quality educational experience, I learned quickly that the children’s communities and the policies that supported their families had a much larger impact on students’ overall successes. 

Q: You’ve attended three really impressive schools for postgraduate degrees. What drew you to Claremont, Harvard, and Princeton? 

Originally, I thought I wanted to pursue my graduate work in education policy or administration, but after teaching for a few years, I changed my direction and decided that I wanted to learn more about social welfare policies and how to best strengthen families. I had the opportunity to attend Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government just a year after President Clinton signed the 1996 welfare reform bill, and a large number of my faculty had resigned in protest to this new legislation. It was an amazing time to be in that community as we sought to understand how these radical changes to welfare policy would impact families. 

While at Harvard, Sara McLanahan, who would ultimately become my mentor at Princeton, presented at a lunch talk and shared information on the new national study she was leading to better understand the strengths and challenges that unmarried parents faced in raising their children. 

I was one of the original researchers on the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing study and used that to inform my work and contribute to my field for many years because it was a longitudinal study that followed these parents and children over time. 

Q: What initially led to your research interests? (social policy, poverty, inequality, etc.) 

After college, I began working as an economic consultant and was really challenged and motivated … but my heart just wasn’t making it to the office. I began to really question why it is that some kids seem to make it with relatively little effort whereas other kids worked so hard but continued to struggle. This question led me to education, which evolved and expanded into child and family policy. 

Q: What keeps you interested in those topics now? 

The needs of children and families continue to grow. They need support to do the thing — raise their children — that they strive to do, and policy choices make a huge difference in the extent to which they can do this job. 

Nurturing relationships between parents and children are the key to healthy development, and if we can reduce the stressors on families and increase their knowledge and skills of child development, they will engage with their children in ways that will help their children meet their optimal health and development. 

Q: What do you see as similarities between the Tennessee health landscape and that within Texas? 

I like to live in states that need my help. Seriously though, Texas and Tennessee have a lot of similarities in that there is tremendous opportunity to better support families with young children. Each state offers many effective and vital services to families, but each could do more to collaborate across agencies to make the delivery of services more effective and efficient. 

And the area in which both states could improve is to implement larger structural changes, such as higher minimum wages, paid family leave, expanding Medicaid, etc. 

Q: Tell me about the transition of the Child and Family Research Partnership to your Prenatal-to-3 Policy Impact Center. How has that been going, now that you are over a year into the transition? 

We launched the Child and Family Research Partnership (CFRP) in 2010 and served as a resource for Texas state agencies, other state nonprofit organizations, as well as some national work. Primarily, we conducted evaluations to help the organizations understand if they were serving their clients in the ways they aspired to. We conducted implementation and impact evaluations and used mixed methods approaches, but most importantly, we incorporated the voices of those who were implementing the programs and receiving the services in our evaluations. 

In 2019, we had the opportunity to expand our work to focus on state policy at a national level. We launched the Prenatal-to-3 Policy Impact Center, with the goal of identifying the most effective state level policies that improve outcomes and reduce disparities for families with very young children. CFRP became the research arm of the Policy Impact Center, and our goal is to continue to build the evidence base to expand the options that states have to support families. 

Transitioning to Vanderbilt was challenging, but we have finally landed and feel very much at home. The only difficulty is that I sincerely miss the close relationships that I built in Texas and still think of Texas as home. 

Q: Beyond policy changes, which you will discuss in your keynote, what can someone who isn’t a legislator do to support early childhood health and outcomes? 

Early childhood is the most rapid and sensitive period of development and sets the stage for lifelong health and well-being. However, in our country, we invest less in early childhood than any other developed country. 

We need everyone to prioritize investments in early childhood and let their legislators know that they will only vote for leaders who prioritize policies to support this age period.

Written by Kirsten Handler, communication specialist at the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living.