Guy to Know: Jack Tsai

Dean of UT Health Houston School of Public Health, San Antonio

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It’s hard to imagine a more challenging month in recent memory for a leader to take over a public health campus than March of 2020, but that’s exactly what Dr. Jack Tsai did when he became dean of UTHealth Houston School of Public Health’s San Antonio location.

It was a hit-the-ground-running kind of experience for Tsai.

“I was both excited and stressed to take on my role as our generation’s largest public health event unfolded,” he said. “I had to learn quickly, and my resilience and the resilience of the school, as well as the City of San Antonio, was tested. I was very grateful for the collaboration we had with Metro Health during that time, and our faculty worked with various community agencies and companies to confront the pandemic. So, it was a time in which there was great public health concern, but we also all came together to take it on.”

Tsai came to Texas by way of Connecticut after working as a professor at Yale for 10 years. UTHealth Houston School of Public Health offers graduate degrees in various public health disciplines. Tsai and his team are located in the heart of the San Antonio Medical Center. 

It’s been more than three years since Tsai came to San Antonio, and despite the pandemic restrictions of the first few years, he’s learned a lot about his new hometown, including discovering a love for local barbecue spots.

Tsai said moving to San Antonio was a deliberate choice because he was ready for a larger city that still had that small-town feel and because he fell in love with the city. 

“When I visited San Antonio, I just really loved it,” Tsai said. “I love the culture of the city; it’s good for families, and the people are down to earth.”

Living closer to the woman he would eventually marry was also a big part of what brought Tsai to the Alamo City. Recently, Tsai tied the knot with Dr. Vanessa Schick, a fellow faculty member at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health.

Tsai said he and Schick have enjoyed exploring all the smaller towns around San Antonio and in the Hill Country, including the Frio River and Concan. Tsai likes the easy access to nature, lakes, and rivers around San Antonio, and enjoys spending time outdoors, but he said the closest he’ll get to sleeping under the Texas stars is glamping.

Where did you live before San Antonio?

I was born in Taiwan, so I’m an immigrant. I moved to California at the age of four for my dad’s job and returned to Taiwan when I was 15 and completed high school there. I returned to the U.S. for college, earned my PhD in clinical psychology from Purdue University, and went on to work at Yale. My parents still live in Taiwan, and I can still speak basic Mandarin, the official language of Taiwan.

How did you end up working in public health?

I’ve always been interested in understanding severe mental illness. When I was in second grade, a friend’s mom had a psychotic disorder – she murdered her two kids, and one of them was a classmate of mine. I was bewildered by this severe mental illness, trying to understand why this would happen, so I think that sparked something early on in my life. Now, I’m a licensed psychologist, and I’m interested in helping people with severe mental illness function in the world. So, I started researching solutions for housing people with mental illness, which led to a passion for public health work.

Is this your dream job?

I’m at a stage of life where I don’t think about a dream job. You should love what you’re doing instead of always looking for the next thing. I’m doing what I love, but it’s important to love what you do. The unique thing about my job is that it’s different every day. I’m always meeting new people, discovering new problems and solutions, and researching new topics. 

Favorite local spots in San Antonio?

I really like barbecue, especially brisket. A couple of places I go to often are The County Line BBQ and Pinkerton’s Barbecue downtown. 

What do you love about being a dean?

I love this job because we have a small campus. Here, I can work closely with people every day and work on things that impact the local community. I love the staff here; they’re very dedicated, and lots of them grew up in San Antonio, and the faculty as well. It feels like one big family.

What’s one thing you would want the public to understanxd about public health?

Public health encompasses every area of life. It affects the everyday person in everyday life, whether it’s the air you breathe, the roads you walk on, the schools your kids go to, where you eat, where you work, what your work setting is like – public health affects every aspect of every day. I look forward to tackling new problems. It can be easy in my role to get discouraged about all the problems, but if you see them as puzzles to solve, that makes it motivating. And that’s the ultimate goal of public health – we’re trying to solve puzzles.

Your work is all about health, but what’s one unhealthy thing you love?

I love binge-watching TV shows. My favorite shows of all time are Seinfeld and The Sopranos. Recently, Vanessa and I have been watching The Tudors, which has been a fascinating historical drama.

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