Published November 21, 2019
A Distinguished Alumni Award recipient, Dean S. Seneca has had a distinguished career planning for healthier communities working both close to home and abroad.
A 1990 graduate of the environmental design program who went on to earn graduate degrees in public health and urban planning, Seneca is currently CEO of Seneca Scientific Solutions+ LLC, a capacity building assistance firm that embraces the concepts of “healthy places for healthy people.” Some of the services provided include strategic planning, economic development, public health policy, health research, epidemiology, emergency preparedness, grant writing, and program evaluation.
Previously Seneca was a senior health scientist for the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CCD), a role that sent him around the world to organize disease response teams, environmental controls and vaccination plans.
Seneca grew up in Buffalo’s Old First Ward, traditionally the Irish section of the city, amongst the shadows of grain silos, iron factories and Buffalo Creek. Although his family origins are with the Seneca Nation of Indians in WNY, Seneca says many of his family members moved to Buffalo in search of economic opportunity.
Seneca found his opportunity at UB, thanks to a fellow Native American mentor at his high school who encouraged him to enroll. A talented athlete, Seneca played basketball for UB. He explored architecture and art history before finding inspiration in the environmental design program and the teachings of Robert Shibley, Himi Jammal, Scott Danford and Al Price. He took away lifelong skills in critical thinking, strategic planning and applied research. “Being able to solve complex problems, to take a step back before confronting a situation and think strategically. Those are the skills that are the key to success.”
“If you’re addressing only health—and not education, economic development and the environment— you’re really just putting a Band-Aid on the larger problem.”
- Dean S. Seneca (BAED '90)
Always proud of his indigenous roots, Seneca admits growing up in the Old First Ward left him detached from his culture. So, when the opportunity knocked to work in the tribal planning and economic development office of the Seneca Nation after he graduated from UB, the young planner jumped at the chance to make a difference. He says the impoverished environment and disenfranchisement he witnessed – and the positive experience of helping the community overcome obstacles and develop its first health center – made a lifelong lasting impression on him. “That experience really strengthened my passion for Indian people,” he says.
Indeed, the health challenges faced by American Indians are many – and often invisible to the greater population. “You can name any illness, chronic disease or social behavior. Native people suffer at a disproportionate higher rate of illness.”
It was also during this time that Seneca made the connection between the living environment and improving health. “If you’re addressing only health—and not education, economic development and the environment— you’re really just putting a Band-Aid on the larger problem.”
“I decided to combine my planning skills and technical training in community development with public health to create the concept of healthy places for healthy peoples,” he states. Seneca went on to earn master’s degrees in public health and urban planning from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. At the same time, he built on his experience running an entomology and epidemiology unit for the U.S. Army Reserves.
Since then, he has taken this approach to communities in need around the world, first as tribal planning director for the Seneca Nation and then as senior health scientist for the CDC’s Office for State, Tribal, Local and Territorial Support. In that role, Seneca has served in Ethiopia on the WHO Stop Transmission of Polio assignment, helping to train close to 500 health workers in disease surveillance and vaccination planning. During the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Seneca organized teams of workers from the international government and health agencies to train hundreds of local “contact tracers” to manage the spread of the disease. He oversaw a similar efforts in Afghanistan to combat its ongoing polio endemic.
Friend and colleague Wayne Domnitz describes Seneca as a man who “has often volunteered to journey to some of the world’s most dangerous places to save human lives regardless of their political, economic, or religious beliefs.”
Ever committed to serving the country’s indigenous people, Seneca is a tireless advocate for Native health, sovereignty, land and education. At the CDC he developed a conference on increasing the number of American Indian/Alaska Native/Native Hawaiians in the public health professions. In his spare time, he consults with the Seneca Nation on planning and environmental health issues and, whenever possible, visits Native communities to talk with kids about the value and importance of education.
“We have found out that money does not solve all problems,” says Seneca, referring to the growth of gaming on Native lands. “The solution for our communities is academic and cultural education, grabbing kids at early age and getting them more involved in learning and experiencing an array of new things.”
More recently, Seneca served as Director of the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Epidemiology Center which supports Tribal communities in their efforts to improve health through partnership development, community- based research, education and technical assistance.
In addition to his UB alumni award, Seneca is the recipient of the 2010 Phil Smith Award from the Native Research Network in honor in recognition of his efforts to improve health for Native communities. In 2007, he was presented with the Distinguished Service Award from the CDC for his leadership of the organization's Tribal Consultation Policy Work Group. He has also been honored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency for his service to the nation's indigenous populations.