Interview conducted by ENCORE conductor David Simmons

Recently, while telephoning each of my DC ROCKS singers to check in with them during this challenging time, I discovered that one of our members, Dr. Sandra Quinn, is in the eye of our current COVID-19 storm due to her decades of work in the fields of public health and health equity, where a portion of her work has focused on public health emergency preparedness and response. She was the first to examine public attitudes toward emergency use authorizations for drugs and vaccines and test an empirical model of disparities in exposure, susceptibility, and access to care during a pandemic.  I asked Dr. Quinn if she would chat with me about her work in the field of public health as well as her experiences as a devoted singer in ENCORE.  She agreed and I am thrilled to share my conversation with the Encore family:

Sandra Quinn Photo 01 1David At what age did you start singing in choirs/choruses and what is your choral background?

Sandra – My first experience with formal singing was in my Andover High School Chorus in Linthicum, MD.  That was also my last formal choral experience until I started singing with ENCORE many years later.

David How long have you been singing with Encore?

Sandra – I started singing with ENCORE in September of 2014

David What path led you to Encore?

Sandra – I had heard a story on NPR about choral groups for older singers and said to my husband that, if the opportunity arose, I wanted to join one of these groups.  Since I am still working full-time, I could not join a chorus with rehearsals that occurred during the day, but then I discovered that ENCORE was offering an evening rehearsal in DC.  I have not missed a semester since joining in 2014.

David What Encore ensembles/camps/tours have you participated in over the years?

Sandra I sang in a Chorale from the fall of 2014 through 2015.  When the ROCKS division of ENCORE was formed in the fall of 2015, I joined the inaugural ROCKS group in DC and I have sung with ROCKS ever since its inception.  I sang in ENCORE’s summer camps at Chautauqua in 2016 and 2017 and participated in both the 2018 and 2019 Rock & Roll Summer Camps and I am signed up for this coming summer’s Rock & Roll Camp.

David What keeps bringing you back to Encore’s programs each season? 

Sandra – Several things keep bringing me back to ENCORE:  I love the singing; I’ve made a whole new set of friends; I love the learning; I love the different conductors’ styles; I love the sense of accomplishment and excitement that you feel at the end of a semester right before a concert.  In fact, many times, as we are coming to the end of a concert program, I will often find myself crying on stage from a pure sense of joy at what we have all just experienced.

David What is your favorite aspect of Encore’s programming?

Sandra – Once again, there are several things I need to mention:  One, if I was not working full-time anymore, I would be doing both Chorale and ROCKS and ALL the camps and retreats.  Second, with ROCKS, I love the fact that even though I knew the melody to many of the songs for years, I now have to learn a new part in a new arrangement of the song.  Finally, I find it interesting that the ROCKS pieces that I love the best are not the arrangements of songs that I have loved for years.  Instead, it is often the arrangements of the songs that I didn’t know at all before singing them with ROCKS that I come to love the most.

David Where were you born and raised?

Sandra – I was born in Baltimore and raised in North Linthicum, a blue-collar community near BWI International Airport. 

David How long have you lived in the DC metro area, what brought you to this region, and where has your career taken you over the years?

Sandra – After receiving my undergraduate degree from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1973, I moved to Silver Spring, MD in 1974 to begin working in the counseling field while working on my Master's degree at American University.   I made a career change in the late 1980s and went back to school.  In 1993 I received my Doctorate in Health Education from the University of Maryland.  In 1995, I moved to Chapel Hill to become an Assistant Professor in the University of North Carolina’s School of Public Health.  In 2000, I moved to Pennsylvania to work in the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Public Health.  In September of 2010, I moved to College Park, MD and began working at the University of Maryland’s newly formed School of Public Health.

David You mentioned that you made a career shift in the late 1980s.  Can you describe the shift, why you made it, where your new career path took you and where are you currently employed?

Sandra – After spending over a decade working as a therapeutic counselor in a variety of county health facilities, including methadone clinics throughout Maryland, I realized that instead of only dealing with the after-effects of community health crises, I wanted to focus my career on what I could do to help PREVENT various health issues from arising in the first place, particularly among disadvantaged and marginalized populations in our society.  In 1988, I applied to a doctoral program at UMD.  All of my previous work in mental health, substance abuse, and LGBTQ and HIV issues, etc., played a significant role in informing all of my work going forward, including my first-hand experience with the portions of the population that did not trust federal government agencies and various state governments when it came to the issue of vaccines and other medicines used to treat numerous diseases.  Much of this distrust stemmed from horrible government abuses, such as the 40-year Tuskegee Experiment that was conducted on poor African-American men, from Macon County, Alabama, by the United States Public Health Service.  Much of my career has focused on the study of how to engage racial and ethnic minority communities in public health and clinical research, and how to communicate effectively during a public health emergency, especially during epidemics and pandemics, again particularly with

minority communities.  I have also focused on the vaccine disparities between white and African-American communities, both before and during emergency situations.   Ten years ago I returned to the DC region when I was offered a professorship at the University of Maryland and asked, along with Dr. Stephen Thomas (my colleague and husband) to start their Center for Health Equity in their School of Public Health, where social justice was part of its mission.  In addition to my work at UMD, I was drawn back to the DC metro area by the diversity of the area – racially, economically and culturally.  

David What is your favorite aspect/component of your current position?

Sandra – As Department Chair, in a department that has undergraduate, masters, and two doctoral programs, the most important thing for me is nurturing the careers of both my students and my faculty.  My goal in my tenure as Department Chair is to build the future of the department.  My greatest purpose, which also gives me my greatest pleasure, is mentoring my “academic children.”  They are one of my biggest legacies.  I just love watching my “academic children” make a difference, all over the country and all over the world, in the field of public health. 

David Can you reflect on how your specific areas of focus and expertise are being put into the national spotlight due to the COVID-19 crisis and what new factors are at work today in response to crises of this magnitude.

Sandra – Most recently, as Covid-19 appeared on the horizon, my department volunteered to state and local health agencies to pull together materials on communicating with the public during times when we are faced with infectious emergencies.  In fact, it seems like many pieces of my career are coming together in this moment of international crisis. One of my most recent research grants from the NIH examines the effects of how vaccines are discussed on social media by the population at-large. I have also conducted a good amount of research on how to prepare society, particularly disadvantaged communities, for the introduction of therapeutic drugs and vaccines once they have been approved.  What is new today is that we have a dismissal of the importance of science and a social media narrative that questions the importance of government, which, in turn, undermines trust in government, including government health agencies.  In terms of infectious diseases, the adage is “it is never IF there will be a pandemic, the question is WHEN will there be a pandemic.”  Usually, we are anticipating an influenza pandemic.  What makes our current situation even more tragic than was it has to be is that we have underfunded and undermined science and public health agencies in the recent past so the soil has been perfectly fertilized for what we see happening today.  And, in the infectious disease scenario we are experiencing, the protests against the measures to combat this disease could contribute to prolonging this epidemic.

David What do you most want to share with people about the fight against Covid-19?

Sandra – Several things:  One, it is a “global fight” and that we MUST partner with the rest of the world, including the World Health Organization and other international health organizations and

governments.  Two, it is critically important for the public to understand that early in a pandemic, there is MUCH uncertainty.  We don’t know much about this virus, which can drive the changing nature of the policies by government and public health officials.  Three, it is important to appreciate and believe in the importance of scientific verification.  Four, don’t share information on social media or other outlets that is not verified.  And finally, we must recognize that the field of public health is not just something that our nation should invest in during those times when we are in crisis mode such as right now.  It must be a deep and long-term investment that our government, at all levels, and our communities, make year after year.  The field of public health, contrary to a good deal of public opinion, is not just about how to provide health care to poor and disenfranchised communities.  Public health is about all of our communities and the health of our nation as a whole.  Right now in this country, unfortunately, we have a “sick care” system rather than a preventative “health care” system. 

David In addition to singing, what are your favorite hobbies, pastimes, and avocations?

Sandra – Gardening, attending theatrical performances, reading, and traveling around the world.

David What is your favorite piece of music that you have ever sung with Encore?

Sandra – Well, out of the ROCKS repertoire, my favorite piece was an arrangement of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  It was such a challenge to learn that work.  Out of the Chorale repertoire, it would be a piece from a holiday concert several years ago in which we sang the words of the “Hallelujah Chorus” to the tune of “Jingle Bells” and then the words of “Jingle Bells” to the tune of the “Hallelujah Chorus.”  What fun!

David If you were an Encore conductor, what song(s) would you select for our next Encore concert?

Sandra – I would love to include arrangements of songs by Carole King, James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt.