As executive director of UCS, Kathleen Rest oversees the organization's programs and operations, drawing upon a wealth of experience in government, academia, and the nonprofit sector to help guide the organization on issues ranging from climate change to global security.
Before joining the UCS staff in 2004, Dr. Rest's experience includes serving as acting director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the anthrax scare that followed. Throughout her tenure at NIOSH, she held several leadership positions, including the deputy director for programs.
Prior to her work in the federal government, Dr. Rest was an associate professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and an adjunct associate professor at the University of Massachusetts School of Public Health. She has extensive experience as a researcher and advisor on occupational and environmental health issues in countries including Canada, Greece, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia.
Dr. Rest was a founding member of the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics (AOEC), a national nonprofit organization committed to improving the practice of occupational and environmental health through information sharing and collaborative research. She also served as the chairperson of the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH).
Dr. Rest earned her doctorate in health policy from Boston University and her master’s degree in public administration, with a focus on health services, from the University of Arizona. She lives in Brighton, MA, and enjoys spending her free time with family and friends, reading, walking, and improving her Greek.
Interview with Kathleen Rest
What aspects of UCS’s mission drew you to the organization?
I came to UCS because the issues we work on are so important to the protection of people and the environment. What so appeals to me about UCS is that we are not simply a “think tank.” We are actively engaged in doing things in order to affect change—to really make a difference.
How do you see your role in the organization?
I’m excited to lead UCS at a moment when the organization has so much vital work underway and as it undertakes a search for a new president. The coming year promises to be one of our most active and successful ever at UCS. I love the fast pace and the variety of issues and challenges that come across my desk. I get to help UCS work on a host of critical issues—from climate change and clean energy and transportation to nuclear weapons and sustainable agriculture. My job requires me to have a broad understanding of the substantive issues we’re working on, while also ensuring that we have the operations and financial support to keep us on track. That’s pretty stimulating and fits my generalist temperament well. Ultimately, though, what gets me up in the morning is being able to work with such incredibly smart, dedicated and passionate people on a host of issues that are so relevant to the health of people and the health of the environment.
Can you say a bit more about your background?
I came from a big Italian family and was the first to go beyond high school. I spent many years working between each of the academic degrees I earned. And when I’d go back to school, my family would scratch their heads and wonder why. But I really got the bug for learning, inspired in part by a terrific mentor in one of my first jobs out of college. I became increasingly interested in public health, and so I just kept going. For many years, most of the work I did focused on worker health and safety. That was a real passion for me. At UCS, I have the opportunity to extend my public health roots into larger issues. I love being part of an organization that values putting that kind of knowledge and passion into action.
Are there particular work experiences over the course of your career that have proven especially relevant to your work at UCS today?
Before I came to UCS in 2004, I had an 18-month stint as the acting director of NIOSH—the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. I loved that job; it was exciting, challenging, and satisfying to lead a federal agency with a strong mission, 1,800 dedicated people, and a budget of $80 million. But it was also a tremendous challenge. As it happened, I ended up serving as the acting director during 9/11 and during the anthrax events that happened around that time. Worker health and safety issues were front and center in both those incidents. It was an intense and very sobering time, and trial by fire for me. I can remember wearing my beeper to bed. You just didn’t know what might happen. But the way people pulled together at NIOSH and at the Centers for Disease Control was enormously inspirational. The experience also helped me discover that I was a pretty good manager.
After my experience at NIOSH, I realized I wanted to work at a different level. My work today encompasses related issues, but through a wider lens; it offers a larger way to try to make change. I’m hooked not only on the breadth of issues I get to deal with at UCS but also the fast pace of our work as we actively look for ways to bring our issues to the forefront of public debate, engage our members and supporters, , push for important changes in the policy arena, and champion the role and integrity of science in public policy.