Ben Andert recently graduated from Master of Public Health Program. They were accepted into the Wisconsin Population Health Service Fellowship program with a placement at the Department of Health Services in the Chronic Disease Prevention Unit and took some time to tell us how their adjustment to being a public health professional is going.

Tell us a bit about you and how you discovered public health.

In undergrad, I majored in music and English, and I don’t think I had even heard of Public Health. After graduation, I worked at Target for a couple of years, and then moved to Madison to work at Epic. I did Quality Assurance, which didn’t end up being a great fit. After that I worked at CapTel for about eight and a half years.

Ben Andert
Ben Andert

During that time, I became involved in the WI Trans Health Coalition (WTHC). Through the WTHC, I met someone who worked at Fair Wisconsin, which does LGBTQ education and advocacy work, and learned that tBhey had an opportunity for an unpaid internship. I jumped at that possibility, and loved learning so many things I hadn’t known about the nonprofit world. After only about a month, the person I had initially met began transitioning out of her role to pursue other work, and I was promoted to a paid role. After a while, Fair was willing to increase my hours, and I was also hired to do some generalist work for FORGE, a transgender antiviolence organization. The combination (plus the ACA), allowed me to quit CapTel.

Although I was passionate my work at Fair and FORGE, it became exhausting trying to piece together this work in addition to a part-time job to pay the bills. As I began considering grad school, I talked with a friend who is a professor in the Counseling Psychology Department at UW. We talked through some different programs and she mentioned Public Health. As I did more research, it became clear that the Public Health focus on systems change and targeting the root causes of disparities aligned with the change I want to be a part of in the world.

In Barb Duerst’s class during my first semester, Paula Tran Inzeo was a guest speaker and talked about the WI Population Health Service Fellowship. She talked about health equity in ways that expanded what I had heard before, and I tucked the Fellowship in the back of my mind as something that I would love to pursue. Through the first few months of the Fellowship, I’m been thrilled that health equity is an integral part of the Fellowship program.

What are you working on with the WI Population Health Service Fellowship?

My placement is at the Department of Health Services in the Chronic Disease Prevention Unit (CDPU). I came on board just as health equity has become a huge topic everywhere, and I’ve been really impressed at how both the CDPU and the larger sections of the DHS have prioritized addressing health disparities and focused on anti-racism. The other main things I’ve focused on so far have included the Diabetes Action Plan and Healthy Early: Home Edition.

What challenges have you experienced with your placement at DHS? How have you overcome them?

I think probably the biggest challenge is figuring out how to balance and prioritize all the different tasks I’m working on, and the sheer number of meetings. There is such a variety of projects happening in the Chronic Disease Prevention Unit that it can feel a little overwhelming remembering what’s what, and what all the acronyms stand for. And so many of the things going on sound interesting that I’m tempted to get involved in way too many things. Mary, my preceptor, has been extremely helpful in reminding me to find a balance and ask whether any particular project will help me grow and progress toward the goals I’ve set for the fellowship. As far as the acronyms and remembering what’s what, I’m catching on as I get involved in things, and I’ve found that people are really patient and willing to explain what things are and what’s happening with all the moving pieces. I am certainly learning a lot!

Any exciting, interesting experiences you can share?

In general, it’s really exciting when I’m part of meetings where I feel like I have something concrete to offer. I anticipated feeling clueless and mainly quietly learning a lot at the beginning of my work at DHS. My role is often to learn at many of the meetings I attend, but it’s exciting as I begin to feel more frequently like I have insights to share based on what I’m learning and the work I’m doing. It also makes me really happy when I can offer thoughts or opinions based on my previous work experiences, field placement, or MPH knowledge.

Another thing that I’ve found exciting, and that I really wasn’t expecting to happen yet, is that in talking with coworkers, I’ve gotten a much better sense of what kind of public health work I would like to do in the future. Pretty much every time I’ve talked with one of the Epidemiologists in particular, when she’s mentioned what she’s working on and what some of her future goals are, it has sounded exciting and like things that I also want to work on. She’s been able to provide great recommendations for what software I want to learn and what other skills I want to develop. Having a better sense of where I might want my future public health work trajectory to look like has been incredibly helpful in developing goals that I want to achieve during the fellowship and onward.

One positive thing to happen because of COVID is that in order to meet my team members, we’ve had one-on-one conversations in a much more intentional way than I would think would have happened if we were in person. That has allowed me to get to know each of them in different ways, and it’s really cool to hear how people have landed where they are now, and what they’re passionate about. I can honestly say that everyone I’ve talked to has been really friendly, and it’s clear that people care about the work they’re doing. I feel very lucky to have been placed in a site with such awesome people.

How do you think your MPH has prepared you for your placement?

I think in the broadest sense, many of the concepts I learned during my MPH were not ones that I had been familiar with previously, and it’s taken for granted (reasonably so, probably) that people have an understanding of how they work in the public health world. Things like social determinants of health, upstream causes, evidence-based practice, and evaluation, just to name a few, weren’t concepts that I would have been able to say much if anything about prior to my MPH, and they come up constantly in the course of my work at DHS. I also learned about gathering data and some of the primary sources of public health data (BRFSS and YRBS in particular), and the conversation is often something like, “…and the BRFSS, I can’t remember what that stands for…” and people are always relieved that I’ve heard of it so they don’t have to try to explain it.

I think there are probably a lot of other ways that my MPH prepared me for working at DHS, too, but this is what’s coming to mind at the moment.