Public Health Pre-Grad Intern Katelyn Woolheater

Katelyn WoolheaterEntering my final year of undergraduate studies in public health program of the College of Natural Sciences, I was looking for opportunities to beginning exploring what might come next. The Pre-Graduate Internship was an ideal fit. The program granted me the autonomy to find my own mentors and set up an internship that was most suited for my objectives. The public health program at UT is only a few years old, and in an early phase of establishment. As a result, there are limited resources available to students. As my concentration is in health policy and management, I have sought opportunities outside of the Natural Science school to find connecting experience.

As a sophomore I worked for the Policy Agendas Project in the Government Department under Dr. Bryan Jones. I worked closely with a number of PhD candidates, especially former IE mentor, Michelle Whynman. In addition to learning about policy analysis and research methodology, I gained great insight into the realities of graduate education. I was inspired by their work and dedication to their field. I took my own research to the Midwestern Political Science Conference where I presented at the undergraduate poster session. Immersed in their world of political science, surrounded by innovative researchers and passionate discussion, I felt certain that academia was a world for me.
Political Science, however, was not my desired path. The IE internship provided for me a means of acquiring insight into graduate school more keen to my interests. I was arranged with my current mentor, Rebecca Hornbach, a teaching assistant I had in a previous semester for my Environmental Health course, which is taught by Dr. Davis Eaton, a professor of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Rebecca is a Masters of Global Policy/ Masters of Public Health candidate in a dual degree program with the LBJ School at the University Of Texas School Of Public Health, Austin branch. My own academic interests span global health and developmental policy, so Rebecca was a well suited candidate. Her faculty mentor, Dr. Catherine Weaver, also a professor of the LBJ School teaches a course in Methods and Evaluations concerning health and humanitarian initiatives. This also was an ideal match because my goal is to work in health metrics and evaluation for global health systems and program coordination. Rebecca agreed to work with me at the end of the spring semester and we met at the end of the summer upon her return from an internship in Washington D.C. with USAID.

From the first meeting, Rebecca expressed her interest in investigating the global burden of non-communicable diseases and how the issue is being addressed by US global health entities. As much of my undergraduate public health work focuses on acute diseases, I was immediately on board to research chronic conditions. I also expressed from the beginning a desire to learn more about health financing and the economic structure of health care domestically and internationally. This developed the focus of my research, which would concern federal funding of aid towards non-communicable disease. This also led to my participation in Dr. Warner's Health Finance course at the LBJ School. Before the semester began, we contacted Dr.Warner and requested that I audit the course for the semester. He was happy to oblige and made accommodations to include me.

I hope to successfully petition my IE Pre-Graduate Internship for credit as a connecting experience for my Bridging Disciplines Program, which requires a minimum of two. My program is in Social Inequalities and Health. To accommodate their requirements, I have worked to make my research project with Rebecca interdisciplinary. This objective had an essential role in shaping the way in which Rebecca and I structured the internship. The focus would be my individual research project, but we would utilize resources to take on the study from multiple perspectives. To do this, I would work with Rebecca and Dr. Weaver, meeting regularly to discuss my project and other questions about graduate school as well as audit courses and attend pertinent meetings and lectures relevant to my academic interests.

I most regularly audited Dr. Warner's health finance class. Because of the prerequisites in place for economics courses at UT, I could not register for any health care or developmental economics courses for credit. I was thrilled to be able to get exposure to the material though auditing, an option I had not considered before. The class is a general survey of health finance topics, but had a strong focus on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. As exchanges opened mid-semester, I got to learn about the bills implementation in real time. The course has been incredibly relevant to current events and has provided a very contemporary perspective on the more general finance topics we review. Much of the material was over my head, so I spent a great deal of the lecture googling key terms and articles. That said, I learned a great deal and have found the experience thoroughly worthwhile. Dr. Warner was extremely receptive of my participation in the course and met with me outside of class to conduct an interview for my IE assignment.

From this interview, I learned a great deal about the process of becoming a leader in academia. Dr. Warner started his education in English. Post-undergrad, he spend a summer in France and opt to changed direction and applied for the Foreign Service. He then went on to graduate school at Syracuse University in International Public Affairs. This program included a year in India; where upon returning, he was approached by an individual at Syracuse about entering the PhD program and complete his dissertation on chemical fertilizers in India. He took his first teaching job at Wane State in Development Economics and Public Finance as well as Microeconomics. Later, he took an offer from a college at Syracuse to work for a year running program analysis and budgeting at the municipal hospitals in New York. From this experience, he decided to pursue his interest in health economics, and went to Yale for a post-doc. After, he taught at Yale for two years before coming to the LBJ School in 1975. The timeline is dizzying! His story was very significant to me because it illustrates how a career is almost never linear. Life after graduation seems incredibly daunting under the pressures of taking that first step into the real world. But Warner's life shows that your path can evolve with your interests. This was very reassuring to me. This aspect of flexibility in academic is most appealing to me.

Another alluring aspect of a career in academia is the ability to work on projects outside of the university. For example, Dr. Warner has been involved in a number of things in the state. He was on the board of Brackenridge in the late 70s and early 80s. He was appointed to this role by a city councilman. He also served as chairman of the Texas Diabetes Council for six years. He also served as head chairman of the Texas Tech Board of Regents. As a faculty member he is also on the board of CHASP and was interim head for a period. I like the idea of juggling multiple tasks. He explained that his goals are often project based, which is how I would best describe my own mentality or work-ethic. As an academic, I can use my expertise in my field to acquire leadership roles where I am best set to make changes and significant impact on public policy and health care.

The final wisdom in which Warner bestowed upon me was a bit grim. He expressed fervently that achieving success in academic has become much more difficult. He explained that, increasingly, universities are using lecturers and temporary faculty. He claimed that they and are much less willing to give tenure and your role is unclear, "in a world of masses classes and ways to acquire credentials." He feels that rigorous research, above all, will become increasingly important. Regarding my interest in Public Health specifically, he says, dissuasively, "You know, I really don't know!" In his opinion, "Public Health Schools are funny places"; they were originally set up so that doctors could get a little more training before they took over health departments, or other similar scenarios. Though he supports continuing your education as far as you want to take it, he is wary of the benefit an MPH would provide. Considering my objectives and academic interests specifically, he finds concern in the lack of technical skill I would develop in a general public health program. I very much respect his opinion and his words will weigh heavily in my post-graduate decision making.

The information I gained from Dr. Warner's lectures and interviews were not the extent of knowledge I gained from auditing his course. This was my first graduate level class. I learned a great deal about the expectations and work load. I was delighted to find that class discussion was much more engaging than my experiences as an undergraduate. Further, my peers were all in the course because of a common interest, but came from very diverse backgrounds. That is not to say that I have not found diversity at UT, but in this case, many of my peers were returning to school mid-career, or doing a post-doc. From this, I gained more reassurance that my fate would not be sealed the day I throw up my graduation cap. They were often able to contribute their previous experiences to discussion and I valued the varied perspectives presented by each. As I have learned through my BDP program, a problem is best addressed from all angles.

I also audited Dr. Catherine Weavers Methods and Evaluations course at the LBJ School once. Unfortunately, her lecture was at the same time as a mandatory lab I am in this semester. After establishing a relationship with her as my faculty mentor this semester, I hope to attend her course in the future when my schedule allows. Although Rebecca and I planned to work out my attendance to a few classes at the SPH, this did not pan out. Rebecca chose to drop her courses at the SPH after a few weeks due to disappointment in the course content. This conversation was one of the most important to me that I shared with Rebecca. Though I am committed to continuing my education beyond my undergraduate studies, I am not sure that an MPH is the route for me. I am most interested in global health research and the more empirical means of studying public health problems.

I am concerned that biostatistics or something of the like would be a better route for me. Her experiences at the UT School of Public Health helped me make the decision to for go an opportunity which was presented to me in which I would begin taking masters courses at the school this spring. I have taken her words into strong consideration as a search for alternative programs.

The focus of the rest of my internship has been on developing a research paper on non-communicable disease. Rebecca and I have met on a weekly basis almost all semester to collaborate and review my progress on the research endeavor. Initially, I hoped to source data on the proportion of funding from key federal global health aid entities which is directed to non-communicable disease. From this, I could make a comparison of proportion of the disease burden of those nations to which we allocate aid. This study would present a quantification of the problem of poor funding for non-communicable disease. The mis-match proportions would show that these chronic conditions should receive more attention and higher priority, especially in countries of mid-level development.

Interestingly, this approach was deterred first by the government shutdown, before it became apparent that a complete lack of available data would obstruct the project all together. Instead, I have worked on a more general critical analysis of the current status of global aid to non-communicable disease. Although I was not able to work on a more data heavy project as I would have preferred, I have learned an incredible amount about global health and the funding structures of US aid. In the last few years, significant changes have been made in the scheme of federal global health funding. Much of what I had learned in classes from even last year has become dated.

In the process of my research project, I utilized my human resources for data and direction. For example, I met with Dr. Richard Taylor, my former professor for public health, global health, and epidemiology early on to talk about my project. He gave me a few key books and presented me with the latest version of the Kaiser Family Foundation primer on federal global health initiatives. I have also discussed my project with Weaver and Warner. I hope to meet with two of my professors from this semester from the Department of Sociology to review my research.

Although I was not able to cultivate new analytical research methods through my project, I have taken advantage of SSC software short courses to improve my statistical software skills. Most recently, I took a course in R data visualizations that I know will be of great use in graduate school. I plan to continue taking these courses in the Spring. Moreover, I have contacted a PhD student at the SSC School requesting an informal mentorship. After my experience with IE, having learned so much and acquired knowledge of/ access to so many new resources, I wish to continue working with graduate students.

Rebecca and I plan to meet twice more before the semester ends to make final edits to my paper and have closing conversations. She has agreed to review my CV and personal statements and work with me through the graduate application and job hunt process over winter break and in to the Spring semester. Her graciousness and flexibility has been essential in making this experience as meaningful as it has been for me.

Overall, my internship with the IE Pre-Graduate program has been a huge success. I am so thrilled to have been a part of the growing community and look forward to seeing where the program is taken. I benefited from the direct exposure to graduate school in the classroom and getting to know peers and professors through auditing. The relationship I fostered working with Rebecca on my research project has made significant impact on my perspectives and decision making towards my post-graduation path.