British psychologist Dr. Robert Holden says, “If you are alive, you need help.”
It’s no surprise that this is one of Marie Sansone’s favorite quotations. As an environmental lawyer, pioneering public health professional, and head of Washington, D.C.’s disease prevention and treatment agency, Marie, CCAS BA ’78, has built an impressive career working to assist those in need.
And it all began during her time as an undergraduate in GW’s philosophy department.
Marie excelled in Political Science and the Contemporary Imagination, a unique residential program that inspired her interest in philosophy and sparked what would become her lifelong passion for public policy. She not only graduated with special honors in philosophy but was one of two graduating students to receive the Charles E. Gauss Prize for Excellence in Philosophy, a top departmental distinction. After graduation, she headed straight to Stanford to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a lawyer.
“The two constant themes in my career are that I always wanted to practice environmental law but also remain involved with public policy matters generally relating to social justice,” says Marie.
In law school, she was very active in the nation’s first student-run Environmental Law Society, even serving as the organization’s president, and had the opportunity to research and co-author a book on water rights and environmental quality. This led to positions as a state’s attorney in the fields of environmental, natural resources, and land use law, including assistant attorney general in the Alaska Department of Law.
“When I first visited Juneau, Alaska, in 1981, I thought it was the most beautiful city in the world,” she remembers, “and I still do today.” But after seven years, she decided to return to the East Coast to make it easier to visit her parents in upstate New York. Washington, D.C. was a natural choice, since “I knew I would like living in D.C. and also that were would be many great career opportunities in the area.”
Her passion for both environmental law and public policy led her to the D.C. Department of Health (DOH), where she initially served as the attorney for the Hazardous Materials and Toxic Substances Bureau, and then as chief of staff and acting deputy director for the Environmental Health Administration.
One of Marie’s proudest accomplishments was helping to create the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) by merging the Environmental Health Administration, the D.C. Energy Office, the Tree Management Administration, and the Office of Recycling. The result was a cohesive agency for programs and services that protect human and environment health and address energy issues for all sectors of the city.
After this milestone, she remained at the DOH and soon became the interim chief of staff for the HIV/AIDS Administration (HAA). Her tenure at HAA was nothing less than extraordinary—she developed strategies for youth HIV prevention, improved the HIV testing program, launched successful initiatives like the needle-exchange program, and was instrumental in publishing the first reliable statistics on D.C.’s HIV epidemic.
These achievements, she says, were made possible with the help of many people and organizations, including Children’s National Medical Center, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the GW School of Public Health and Health Services (now the Milken Institute School of Public Health). “In all of our endeavors at HAA, we had assistance from GW professors and students,” she says.
Marie credits GW with preparing her well for her remarkable career, thanks to the rigorous intellectual training and multifaceted application of her philosophy degree.
“When you are dealing with something like disease surveillance, you draw on many principles: objectivity, accuracy and precision, data integrity, privacy and confidentiality, statistical analysis, and that all goes back to the very same foundational skills that you learn in philosophy classes,” she explains. “Philosophy is the most useful subject that you can pursue, because more so than any other, it teaches you to inquire, to think critically, to analyze, and to communicate complex thoughts.”
Recently, Marie made a $250,000 planned gift in support of the department that played such an important role in her success. She hopes her gift will help GW students and faculty make the world a better place.
“If GW’s philosophy department performs well,” she says, “then its actions will impact all areas of human endeavor.”