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    • Student Adam Cohen with cartoon bubble that reads 'Creative License' holding ipad showing stick figure illustrations

Creative License

Ideally situated in the world’s entertainment capital, the Fielding School prepares artistically inclined students to captivate audiences with public health messages.
A young african-american woman, Sonja Perryman, leaning up against building smiling. Inset images shows kids eating food and with their certificates.
Sonja Perryman in her current role as an FSPH student; (insets, top to bottom) students at a South Los Angeles elementary school where Sonja Perryman taught nutrition; Perryman with two proud students who completed her program.

The stage was where Sonja Perryman felt free. “I always had all of this creativity bottled up inside of me,” she explains. “Starting as a teen, theater became my outlet – a way to express myself.” 

Raised by her single father, first in Los Angeles and ultimately in Atlanta, Perryman ventured to New York City to study acting at NYU. After earning her degree she had no trouble finding work, both on stage and in commercials. “I was making a good living, and I was happy,” she recalls. That changed the day Perryman was notified that her father had taken ill.

An African-American man with his daughter smiling.
Sonja, as a young child, with her late father, Austin Perryman.

Some of Perryman’s favorite childhood memories were of carefree moments in the kitchen with Austin Perryman, a chef with a passion for helping others. “He would bring me with him every week to feed homeless people, and we even took some of them in,” Perryman recalls. Her father had struggled with his weight and had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, but Perryman never even considered that this pillar of strength and vibrancy could have his life cut short, until the day she learned he had been hospitalized with severe sepsis – a life-threatening complication of an infection. The illness was traced to a minor wound that never properly healed because of Austin Perryman’s diabetes and unmanaged blood sugar. He died several weeks later. Sonja Perryman knew her father’s death was entirely preventable.

Acting began to feel empty; she yearned instead for a career that would honor her father and his commitment to service. By accident, Perryman discovered public health when she accepted a position teaching nutrition to fourth and fifth graders in South Los Angeles. “The minute I stepped into that classroom, I knew what I wanted to do,” she says. “If I could get children in underserved areas to eat healthy and exercise for life so that they never got type 2 diabetes, that would be my life’s work.” 

Sonja Perryman and a  group of young actors preforming on stage.
Sonja Perryman performing onstage.

But Perryman also realized she didn’t have to leave her theater skills behind. She engaged her students in acting games as a way to promote the value of healthy eating. “It helped get them excited about the topic,” says Perryman, now an MPH student at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. “I didn’t have to just tell them why they should care about nutrition. We could explore it together through theater.” 

Public health professionals know what it takes to be healthy, but efforts to convey that knowledge to communities and policy makers don’t automatically result in the desired outcomes. For a profession in which successfully communicating health messages to diverse populations is essential, Perryman and other Fielding School students who possess creative talents are finding that their skills are not only transferrable, but in demand.

“Public health has made tremendous advances over the years, but to take the next leap, we have to get much better at communicating with people in ways that are meaningful to them,” says Sandra de Castro Buffington, founding director of the Fielding School’s Global Media Center for Social Impact (GMI), which aims to increase awareness of and action on important health issues by harnessing the storytelling power of television, film and new media through collaborations with writers, directors and producers. “When we have students who are grounded in public health principles but also have skills that enable them to engage and entertain, that’s a winning combination.” 

“When we have students who are grounded in public health principles but also have skills that enable them to engage and entertain, that’s a winning combination.”  – Sandra de Castro Buffington

“In public health we often compete with major marketing companies with huge budgets that know how to tell a story and are promoting exactly what we’re against,” says Adam Carl Cohen, a Fielding School doctoral student who creates films aiming to improve health behaviors – and whose original short animation “What in the Health Is Public Health” introduces the profession to those outside it. “We have the facts and the science, but we don’t have the artistic ability or marketing savvy to effectively improve health behaviors.”

As a child, Cohen would take his father’s Hi8 video camera and make crude claymations by hitting the camera’s on/off switch. He also loved to doodle but considered his art nothing more than a hobby as he began his undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley. Cohen started as a math major before stumbling upon public health – an introductory course on the topic was offered at the right time slot on his schedule. On the first day, the professor wrote something on the overhead projector that Cohen will never forget: “College will make you sick.” Cohen learned for the first time about the impact of the social and physical environment on health. He was hooked.

After earning his MPH at the Fielding School, Cohen was applying to the school’s PhD program when it occurred to him that he might be able to intertwine his hobby with his career. The Department of Community Health Sciences required a doctoral minor – four courses taken outside of the school. Students typically opted for the likes of sociology, psychology and urban planning; Cohen chose film. “So many public service announcements and social marketing campaigns created by public health fall short,” he explains. “I thought maybe I could learn a thing or two about marketing a great story.” 

Cohen points out that in the new media environment – with vastly cheaper production costs and the ability to post content online – exorbitant budgets that once worked against getting public health messages out are no longer as much of a barrier. “We now have the tools to reach people that easily rival marketing campaigns produced by mainstream media,” Cohen says. “We need to find ways to cut through the campaign clutter and tell stories that people want to hear – stories that also happen to promote positive health behaviors.” Cohen, whose focus is in sexual and reproductive health, hopes to do his part by engaging viewers through digital media storytelling.

A young woman, Jill Donnelly, sitting in a television studio with arms outstretched and smiling.
Jill Donnelly once made her living as a comedic actress and stage performer, with credits that include a CollegeHumor original short with actor Hugh Jackman (right inset). While pursuing her MPH at the Fielding School, she has continued to perform and teach comedy as a parallel career.

At first, Jill Donnelly figured she should hide her previous life.

Donnelly had made her living being funny – doing sketch and improvisational comedy on stage as a regular member of Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York and Los Angeles, as well as performing for Funny or Die, CollegeHumor, and other online and TV outlets. Now she was an MPH student at the Fielding School, looking to develop skills that would enable her to address problems of access to care for vulnerable populations. And there was nothing funny about that.

Three comedy sketches that Jill Donnelly has performed in.
Above: Three of Jill Donnelly’s Funny or Die comedy videos; “The Horse Who said ‘Hey,’” a parody on Annie Leibovitz and “The Steve Carrel’s Movie Poster Contract.”

Public health had always interested Donnelly – she even briefly worked as a Medicare patient advocate. But she loved to perform, and was good at it. Almost immediately upon moving to New York City after college, Donnelly was cast in a musical theater tour. After a few years of musicals she found comedy. “It was exciting to me because, particularly with improv and sketch, you could be creative and use your brain as well as your performance ability,” she explains. 

Donnelly moved to Los Angeles and continued to pursue comedy, but at some point it wasn’t enough. “People say to do what you love, and performing is my favorite thing in the world,” she says. “But the lifestyle – the unsteady income, the need for self-promotion, the lack of control over your own career path – made me unhappy.” Public health still held appeal, and with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, it seemed like an exciting time to make the change. So Donnelly enrolled at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

During her experience as an intern at L.A. Care Health Plan in the summer after her first year in the MPH program, Donnelly began to realize that her comedic and performing skills could be an asset in her new career. “I felt sort of sheepish about it, but the people at L.A. Care loved it,” she says. “I was focused, but I could also bring some levity and they valued that. Improv and sketch comedy are extremely team-driven. In public health, where you need to work well in teams, be flexible, and build off of other people’s ideas, that orientation is very useful.”

A young woman, Alina Palimaru, sitting in a directors chair with film marker and smiling.
As an associate producer on films for patients with disabilities, Fielding School doctoral student Alina Palimaru seeks to convey complex medical topics in an accessible and compelling way to inform and empower patients.

Alina Palimaru never envisioned herself as a filmmaker, nor did she consider the possibility that an entertainment-oriented medium might serve as a vehicle through which she could make an impact on the public health issue that matters most to her.

Palimaru grew up in Romania and was an undergraduate studying history, politics and communications at Drexel University when she returned to her hometown for a visit during winter break, 2006. There she made plans to attend the opening of an art gallery with her friend Corina. It was to be Corina’s first outing in more than a year after being confined to a wheelchair following a car accident, and she was excited. But upon arrival, Corina was confronted with a flight of narrow steps up to the public reception. “The lack of the simplest of wheelchair accommodations ruined Corina’s evening and opened my eyes to my native country’s lack of consideration for the basic needs of disabled people,” Palimaru recalls. She expressed her outrage through an editorial in the local newspaper, but was disappointed by the lack of response.

After college, Palimaru held several public affairs positions in Washington, D.C., and started her own research firm before moving to London to continue working on policy research-oriented projects. But she never forgot about her friend’s disappointment, or about the many people in other countries who are marginalized by a lack of accommodation for their disabilities. In 2010, Palimaru met a film director who offered her the role of associate producer on “From Darkness into Light,” a film about coming to terms with a spinal cord injury. 

The film explains the nature of the injury, describes types of care, and provides patient insights and coping strategies. Neither a scripted story nor a documentary, it belongs to what Palimaru describes as an emerging genre called health care knowledge transfer – conveying complex medical topics in an accessible and compelling way to inform and empower patients and complement their face-to-face consultations with their physicians. 

The film was so well received by health care providers and patients alike that Palimaru decided she had found her niche. “For the first time in my career, I realized that my work could really move people,” Palimaru says. She went on to collaborate with the same director on other productions, including a comprehensive film on wheelchair provisions (vital to a user’s long-term wellbeing). She has also co-written a new film, currently in post-production, that explains the legal rights of disabled people in the UK. 

Palimaru is now a student in the Fielding School’s PhD program, where she is working on a film in the same genre with Dr. Frederick Zimmerman, professor and chair of the school’s Department of Health Policy and Management. “Knowledge Is the Start,” the short film’s working title, will introduce the school’s Center for Health Advancement to a wide audience of Los Angeles-area stakeholders as it emphasizes the importance of the center’s research in effecting change in the city’s future health.

“There is a tendency among some experts to look down upon the use of an entertainment medium for serious health issues,” Palimaru says. “But I came to realize that when you have carefully crafted and vetted content, with clever use of graphics, animation and live-action footage, it can be a very effective health education tool. Public health research findings are communicated mostly in the realm of academic journals. An academic foundation is important, but it can also be extremely beneficial to reach a larger lay audience in a more creative way.”

A young man, Adam Carl Cohen, with his animated character looking at a computer.
Fielding School doctoral student Adam Carl Cohen uses animation, among other media, in an effort to increase awareness about important health issues.

As Adam Carl Cohen sees it, public health can take three approaches to influencing entertainment media. One is legislative – banning tobacco ads, forbidding alcohol from being consumed on TV commercials, requiring characters in kids’ shows to wear motorcycle and bike helmets. Another is to work with content creators in weaving important public health messages into the plots of popular programs and films. Then there’s the route Cohen plans to take – public health professionals as the content creators themselves. “Do it the way you want to do it,” he explains. “Find talented people and work with them to make something that draws in viewers because it’s entertaining, but also sends important messages.”

Too often, Cohen argues, public health media messages have taken on a didactic tone. “If you look at the old advertisements like they use on ‘Mad Men,’ none of those would work today,” he says. “No one is going to buy a drink just because you tell him it tastes better. In the same way, you can’t just tell people they might die if they don’t get a flu shot.”

An introduction to public health course co-taught by Cohen through UCLA Extension is what convinced Jill Donnelly to enroll in the Fielding School’s MPH program. She had barely started her coursework when her old career came knocking. “All of a sudden I’m booking all of these acting jobs,” she says, laughing. There were parts in the Netflix return of ‘Arrested Development’ and the HBO series ‘Hello Ladies.’ Donnelly was getting more calls to appear in online sketches for Funny or Die and CollegeHumor, and she continued to accept invitations to perform regularly at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Los Angeles, where she also teaches improv comedy. On top of her coursework, Donnelly also found time to write a song, “The Public Health Connection,” which depicts the power of public health with her characteristic humor. Donnelly’s performance of the song last year at the annual Fielding School of Public Health Talent Show, sponsored by the school’s Reproductive Health Interest Group, earned her a first-place finish.

Needless to say, she no longer sees the need to hide her comedic skills. “My public health job will be the priority,” Donnelly says of her future plans. “But entertainment can be a parallel career. And ideally, I’ll find a way to combine the two.”


Other videos connected to this article:

Cartoon illustration of man with a projector and screen that reads, "Intro to Public Health' “Intro to Public Health” by Adam Cohen

Adam Cohen playing the guitar and smiling “The One that Works for You” by Adam Cohen

 “The Public Health Connection” by Jill Donnelly