Research provides foundation for grad to attack public health problems

Kathy Staats

Kathy Staats sees her work at the University of Wisconsin Extension as a great opportunity to marshal the research resources of the UW System to address everyday public health problems at the local level.

Staats, who is a coalition coach with the extension service, received her master’s degree in public health policy and administration from the Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health in December 2016.

“The work of the UW Extension is translating the work and research of the UW System at the county level, and that’s a fit with what I’ve been doing,” said Staats. Although she is based in Milwaukee, she works with counties across the state helping local offices on projects that focus on systemic changes that support health and wellness. She started the job part-time last June and went full-time in September as she was wrapping up her studies at UWM.

Her studies at the Zilber School, combined with her previous experience, helped her prepare for her current career, she said.

Her interest in public health started in high school. As a teen in Greendale, she became involved in a group called Teens Against Tobacco Use, and then a statewide initiative called FACT, a tobacco prevention and education effort for teens led by teens. She gained experience in talking to state legislators and committees about the impact of tobacco use on young people.

“I began to understand the ways in which policy, advocacy and activism are related to public health.”

She earned a bachelor’s degree in public communication from UW-Eau Claire, knowing it would draw on her interests in theater and public speaking to communicate about issues that affect people’s health, Staats said.

After graduating, she took a job at with the Wisconsin Tobacco Prevention and Control Program and found that her passion was to examine and improve the broader field of public health and advocacy.

“I was struck by how issues around tobacco use are affected at such higher systemic levels. My passion lies with the policy process, how we as a public health field need to conduct policy advocacy efforts,” Staats said.

“What’s unique about the master of public health program at Zilber is that they do a field experience, like a practicum and capstone rather than a thesis like other master’s degrees. That’s one of the reasons I came here, along with the school’s focus on social justice.”

At Zilber, she also had the opportunity to work with Linnea Laestadius, assistant professor of public health policy and administration, who was doing research on how social media and corporate-interest advertising affected personal health behaviors.

Staats’ MPH field experience efforts were honored when she received an award — the 2016 New Professionals Scholarship of the Public Health Education and Health Promotion Section of the American Public Health Association. That award allowed her to attend the APHA’s national convention in October to present the research she did for her field experience.

Her project, done for the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health, looked at the barriers public health professionals face in doing policy advocacy. In the research, conducted last summer, Staats looked at eight health policies that were introduced in the 2015-2016 Wisconsin legislative session, tracking testimony, looking at how the public health community was involved, and where there were roadblocks or barriers.

The financial part of the award helped fund her trip to Denver to the national APHA conference. “Being a graduate student, just starting a new job and having to pay for a wedding later this year, I didn’t have a lot of disposable income to pay for the conference out of pocket.” More importantly, she said, “Being recognized was a culmination, an honoring of where I’ve come to in the field of public health.”

Her current work with the extension service brings together the knowledge and experience she’s acquired.

“They (the county extension offices) are able to work with their coalitions in their communities to work on changes, vs. me coming in from statewide position and telling them what they have to do. It’s an interesting model for public health.

“I feel so lucky to be in this position now because of the reach that the extension service is able to have with counties around the state. With my experiences and studies, I feel perfectly situated with where I am now.”