Milken Institute SPH Alumnus Works to Improve Water Safety

Rob coordinated relief efforts along the western coast of Sumatra, Indonesia following the earthquake in 2004.

GW Alumnus, Robert Steiner, MPH ’00, is a water expert, entrepreneur, and investor. When asked to describe himself, he says, “I’m a mixture of Forest Gump, Walter Mitty, and Teddy Roosevelt. When you make good things happen, good things happen to you in return.”

His career has been transformative in the fields of water and public health. It all began in 1997, when he graduated with his Bachelor of Science in Environment Health and Policy from the University of Michigan. After graduating, Rob embarked on his journey to pursue his passion for the environment. His first stop was Brazil. He lived like a local and made strides to immerse himself into the native culture to understand the country’s environmental challenges. Rob reminisced by telling the story of his first significant epiphany and the moment when he realized his “idealistic American perspective” was skewed and saving the rainforest was not the real concern of the majority of the population.

The story began serendipitously when Rob was hitchhiking through South America and was picked up by a local ambulance driver. The driver said he would give Rob a ride if he helped to make emergency deliveries to a local clinics along the Uruguay River that had previously flooded some small towns. At each stop, Rob unloaded expensive medicine, antibiotics, and various other medical supplies into the clinic. The driver followed him carrying jugs of water. Rob was struck by how the staff ran past him and his expensive deliveries to greet the driver who carried the clean water. In that moment, he realized the medical supplies were secondary and not nearly as essential and sought after as clean water. As a result, Rob realigned his mission in life to focus on safe drinking water—intersecting environmental health and public health.

He returned to Washington, D.C., after his experience in South America to pursue his newfound mission. While working in the Senate (and bartending at The Grill from Ipanema), he enrolled at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health to pursue an Master of Public Health in International Health and Policy.

“I cannot think of a better place to immerse yourself in public health policy than GW. Blocks away from PAHO (Pan American Health Organization), the State Department and USAID,” Rob says. “It was so rewarding to spend your day in classrooms with fellow students and professors and then step outside to be surrounded by leading edge policy and programs.”

Rob continued his career in the public sector as an officer in the U.S. Public Health Service and served within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as a special assistant to Secretary Tommy G. Thompson and a special assistant and adviser to Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona.

“Within three years of graduating from GW, I basically met and worked with every public health leader in the United States,” Rob says.

He advanced his career by taking a new position in the Office of Global Health Affairs at HHS, a role in which he envisioned working in while living in Brazil so many years before. With this job he was deployed with the U.S. Navy to Banda Aceh, Indonesia following the devastating tsunami of late 2004.

Following Indonesia, Rob transitioned from public health service to cofound the no-profit WaterLeaders Foundation, which provides safe drinking water systems in China and Mexico. Today, he continues his focus on safe drinking water through an advisory board role at Splash.org and through several advisory roles and new business ventures.

This article originally appeared on the Milken Institute SPH’s website.

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