Real-time Experience in the Field

Master degree students find nothing replaces on-the-ground problem solving

Albert Einstein said it simply: “The only source of knowledge is experience.” So, while theories may be revealed in the classroom, it’s through actual experience that they come vividly into focus. The School of Public Health (SPH) recognized long ago that this was true for its students. 

Dr. Jon Geller, Executive Public Health Practice MPH student, veterinarian, and founder of The Street Dog Coalition. Photo credit: Kevin Mohatt

The Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) accredits schools of public health and one of its requirements for the Master in Public Health (MPH) is an applied practice experience. SPH calls that experience APEx. 

“APEx is the crown jewel of our MPH program,” says Associate Dean of Education and Student Engagement Elizabeth Wattenberg. “Students get to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and practice it in a real-life situation. It’s probably the most important part of their education and the most highly valued by the students.”

The same level of real-life experiences is encouraged in other SPH degree programs, such as the Master in Healthcare Administration (MHA) and the Master of Science (MS).

 “It’s good that people are strongly bonded to their pets… Yet it’s because they have this pet that they lose access to care.”

Jon Geller

We spoke to four students whose experiences in the field were as vast and varied as they were valuable for the organizations and communities in which they worked. 

Caring for Lives on Both Ends of the Leash

Dr. Jon Geller embraces the multidisciplinary and interconnected nature of public health with the nonprofit he started in 2015. Called The Street Dog Coalition, it provides healthcare to the pets of people experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness. Geller practiced emergency veterinary medicine for 20 years and is completing the Executive Public Health Practice MPH. His work with the coalition is his APEx experience.

MHA student Jun Chen. Photo credit: Chris Cooper

The Street Dog Coalition began as a once-a-week pop-up clinic in Colorado, where Geller lives, and it now has teams in nearly 50 cities, all with volunteers who staff street clinics. No money is exchanged; everything is free. Last year alone, 4,350 pets received medical care and 3,000 pet owners received help, too. Thanks to grants and major partnerships, like that of Merck Animal Health, Geller is able to offer healthcare for pets that would otherwise be impossible. 

What Geller discovers in his work is that offering things like free rabies shots, heartworm medication, and pet food is a way to build trust with the animals’ owners and the coalition expanded from providing care to pets to providing care to people — care at both ends of the leash, Geller calls it. 

“I really got pulled into the paradox of owning pets when you have no home,” Geller says. “It’s good that people are strongly bonded to their pets. In fact, pets are often the only family member or friend they have because there’s so much social dysfunction on the streets. Yet it’s because they have this pet that they lose access to care. Meaning, they can’t go into a homeless shelter and sleep with a pet. They can’t go into a grocery store or doctor’s office.” 

The Street Dog Coalition is at the intersection where bigger public health crises arise — such as inequity, poverty, and access to care — and Geller is using his APEx experience to channel his long career knowledge, nudging communities everywhere to become safer, healthier, and more just places. 

In recent months, Geller has taken The Street Dog Coalition to Ukraine. The coalition subsidizes the airfare to send volunteer veterinarians to the warzone to care for the many pets and their people who have been displaced or are in vulnerable living conditions. So far, they’ve helped more than 800 animals.  

Reimagining Mental Health Care

MPH student Madeline Weinkau. Photo credit: Chris Cooper

With a background in research and development in the biotech sector, Jun Chen knew that for his Master of Healthcare Administration (MHA) degree, he wanted a field experience that embraced innovation. He found it during a summer internship at MHealth Fairview Southdale Hospital, with EmPATH (Emergency Psychiatric Assessment, Treatment, and Healing) unit, Minnesota’s first emergency mental health care model of its kind, which opened in March 2021. 

EmPATH offers a unique solution to a long-standing problem that emergency departments (EDs) across the nation face. Due to an ever-increasing number of emergency visits related to mental health, EDs have struggled to accommodate patients and provide care. 

“For patients with psychiatric emergencies, the ED is not a conducive space,” says Chen. 

If a patient comes to the ED for mental health reasons, they can be transferred down  the hall to the EmPATH unit after medical clearance. Here the space is completely different from the ED and attuned to the needs of psychiatric patients. It’s set up like a living room, with recliners, refreshments, board games, and even sensory rooms where people can lie down, turn off the lights, and find a moment of peace. 

Data from the first year shows that EmPATH has reduced inpatient admission for people with mental health symptoms by 60 percent and Chen is collecting and analyzing data about how it is continuing to perform. “The main thing I’m looking for is whether or not patients who went to EmPATH are returning to the ED, or if they’re getting what they need at EmPATH,” Chen says. 

Largely self-directed, his internship allowed him to join different meetings, interview healthcare staff, observe the EmPATH unit, and study the data. “In terms of professional growth and communication skills, it’s been super helpful to be thrown into a real world environment,” Chen says. “It’s helped me build confidence.”

“[Survey] results started getting attention in Dominican newspapers. Now they’re talking about this issue in the Dominican Congress, which is pretty awesome… What started as a simple Google survey really had an impact.”

Madeline Weinkauf

Menstrual Health in the Dominican Republic

Right out of college, Madeline Weinkauf took an internship with MotherWise, an organization that supports women, children, and families during pregnancy and after a baby is born. When it came time to complete the APEx requirement for her MPH, Weinkauf wondered how she could do something similar. Through her mentor, Associate Professor Zobeida Bonilla, who specializes in maternal and child health, Weinkauf became involved in a research project with the Batey Relief Alliance (BRA), an NGO in the Dominican Republic that addresses socio-economic and health conditions of women, children, and families.

“BRA was starting this menstrual health research and I really took the lead,” Weinkauf says.

MPH student Julie Ntegeye

Weinkauf participated in period poverty research. Period poverty refers to the many barriers women face when it comes to menstrual products, education, and sanitation, and is a critical public health issue now gaining attention. A 2021 BRA study revealed that 20 percent of girls in rural Dominican Republic missed 2-3 school days each month during menstruation due to lack of access to sanitary pads. Weinkauf gathered data for BRA by creating, distributing, and analyzing a survey to learn more about health, hygiene, and menstruation stigma in the country.

As part of her APEx experience, Weinkauf created a data brief, with findings from the survey she created.

“It kind of exploded from there,” Weinkauf says. “Procter & Gamble learned of the survey results and donated menstrual products and the results started getting attention in Dominican newspapers. Now they’re talking about this issue in the Dominican Congress, which is pretty awesome.”

Weinkauf reflects on her APEx experience and can’t say enough about the effect it had on her. “My applied practice was the best experience I had in the MPH program,” she says. “What started as a simple Google survey really had an impact.” And Weinkauf got to see firsthand how research on a public health issue can manifest positive change.  

Curbing Smoking Habits in American Indians and Alaska Native Populations

Julie Ntegeye doesn’t shy away from a challenge. For her MPH degree, she’s focusing on global health and environmental health, with a special interest in alleviating racial disparities. When it came to her APEx requirement, Ntegeye connected with SPH Assistant Professor Dana Carroll who’s leading research on the smoking habits in American Indians/Alaska Natives (AI/AN). 

The use of traditional tobacco — the plant (Nicotiana rustica) and mixtures of other native plants —  is a centuries-old practice in AI/AN cultures for cultural, medicinal, and ceremonial purposes. But the use of commercial tobacco, with its thousands of added compounds, among AI/AN people is taking a toll —  59 percent of AI/AN people smoke relative to 16 percent of the U.S. population. “We’re seeing a high increase of lung cancer within these communities,” says Ntegeye. “My research is focusing on different approaches to help people who are trying to quit smoking.”  

Ntegeye is recruiting individuals to participate in a study, doing phone screenings, conducting interviews via Zoom, and analyzing the qualitative data. She aims to help discover health solutions that work for each AI/AN community. 

“The work has been amazing,” Ntegeye says. “I love talking to the participants. I love learning about the community. Everything is just a learning experience. And I will definitely use it for my future job or career.”

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