CAPT. Alan G. Parham ’87 ’91 has been on the front lines of protecting the nation’s health throughout his 25-year career as an environmental health officer for the U.S. Public Health Service. In addition to serving in assignments with the Coast Guard in Alaska and working with Native American tribes in the Southwest and as a scientist with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, he also has supported public health responses for multiple natural and human-made disasters. One example is the 2001 terrorist attacks, when Parham was one of the first two officers from the USPHS Commissioned Corps who were deployed to New York City to evaluate indoor air quality around Ground Zero.
Despite the dramatic circumstances in which he often has found himself, Parham said the memories that dominate his career recollections have to do with the dedication of his fellow officers – the approximately 6,700 public health and medical officers who serve with him in the Commissioned Corps. He speaks with unabashed pride about the corps’ work to fulfill its mission to protect and promote the health and safety of the nation. Serving under the U.S. assistant secretary of health and the U.S. surgeon general, its uniformed officers constitute a highly trained and mobile health force on call 24 hours a day, Parham said. The history of the corps goes back 200 years, but its officers sometimes refer to themselves as “the few, the proud, the invisible” because the general public knows so little about their service, he said.
A native of Canton, Parham was called to active duty with the USPHS in 1991, after earning his bachelor’s degree at WCU in environmental health, to help evaluate health impacts on local communities and Pueblo tribes near the U.S. Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. In 1995, he earned a master’s degree in public health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Three years ago, Parham was appointed by the surgeon general to the post of chief environmental health officer, the highest position in his field, where he leads approximately 350 officers. He also currently works as a senior environmental health scientist for the CDC, leading a multidisciplinary team that evaluates the impacts of hazardous waste sites around the country.
Parham resides in Winder, Georgia, with his wife, Kim, and the couple’s four children – Logan, Brady, Sheridan and McKinley. The family visited Cullowhee last October as Parham received the WCU Alumni Association’s Professional Achievement Award during Homecoming festivities. As she presented the award, Association President Robin Pate ’97 spoke about Parham’s dedication to his calling, which has taken him “to many places where his service in protecting the health of the public after disasters was desperately needed.” Parham told the audience at A.K. Hinds University Center that he never strived to achieve the position he now holds, but over the years he just focused on developing relationships with those serving around him – his fellow officers whom he respects so much. “I simply looked to lead when there was a need for somebody to lead,” he said.