Where are they now? Melissa Ward-Peterson

The College of Arts, Sciences & Education prepares students for life after graduation to become successful leaders in the community. We went on a search to find CASE alumni who are thriving in their careers. This is one in a series we’ve titled, Where are they now?

Melissa Ward-Peterson

Growing up in an immigrant household, Melissa Ward-Peterson says it was often challenging to find communities where her family felt a sense of belonging.

“FIU felt like home. My parents – my dad especially – fell in love with the international aspect of FIU,” Ward-Peterson said. “I started college when I was only 16, so it was important to have somewhere to go that was close to home and that my parents felt comfortable with.”

Her FIU journey started in 2004. She entered as a pre-med student and later realized her passion lay in public health. She credits the FIU Honors College for a tailored and unique educational experience that is hard to find at other institutions. She crossed the stage in 2008 with a bachelor’s in English and minors in biology and chemistry.

A four-and-a-half-year stint in Washington D.C followed, where Ward-Peterson earned a Master of Public Health in Global Health Policy from George Washington University. During her graduate studies, she completed a Global Health Service Fellowship at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. She was then hired to work in the Department of Health Policy at George Washington coordinating, monitoring and evaluating the Medical Education Partnership Initiative – a $130 million international health program in 12 African countries.

Cue “Home” by Daughtry.

This year, she hits the seven-year mark of her FIU employment. Her first role was a simulation coordinator for the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine which fell concurrently with when she began her Doctor of Philosophy in Public Health with a concentration in epidemiology.

A couple of months after graduation from FIU’s Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work, she was hired as a postdoctoral associate with FIU’s Research Center in Minority Institutions (FIU-RCMI), where she coordinates its Research Infrastructure Core.

“I frequently find myself utilizing the multidisciplinary analytical skills I earned as an English major and as a student in the Honors College,” Ward-Peterson said. “When I am designing studies or building statistical models to explore the social determinants of health and the complex nature of health disparities, I still think about books I read and discussions I participated in as an undergraduate.” 

She is the principal investigator on a pilot study examining barriers to accessing medication-assisted treatment among women with opioid use disorder, which combines behavioral therapy and medication to treat substance use disorders and is recognized as the gold standard for treating opioid use disorder.

Ward-Peterson’s research will support FIU-RCMI’s mission to develop and promote a national, clinical and behavioral research program addressing health inequities and disparities, particularly those associated with substance use problems and HIV among underrepresented minorities.

Melissa Ward-Peterson and her honors class

Her university duties extend beyond her post-doctoral responsibilities as she now teaches a course she designed for the FIU Honors College – IDH 3034/3035, Bridging the Distance Between Us: A Practical, Multidisciplinary Introduction to the Social Determinants of Health.

The Honors College alumna considers it one of her proudest accomplishments.

“I designed it to teach students all the things I wish I knew about public health when I was an undergraduate,” she said.

The course examines the foundations of public health, includes discussion of on topical issues and social determinants such as race and socioeconomic status and concludes with a service-learning project in the South Florida community.

When she’s outside of FIU’s boundaries, she’s involved with local political organizing.

“I am often overwhelmed by the unending stories of structural injustices that flood my newsfeed,” Ward-Peterson said. “I’ve found that taking action is the best antidote to what can sometimes feel like a deluge of hopelessness.”

Melissa Ward-Peterson speaking

Ward-Peterson strives for wholehearted living, encouraged by Brené Brown’s “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.”

She encourages those starting their academic career to live life one moment at a time.

“Do what’s in front of you. Try not to lose so much sleep wondering what you’re going to be when you grow up. Everything is going to turn out just fine.”