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Four STPF Alumni Improving Public Health from Chicago

Group photo of STPF alumni in Chicago, gathering outside for happy hour at a restaurant.
STPF Fellows from left to right, front: Sydney Parker, Alexandra Graham, Paul Lartey, Jenifer Buckley, Vince Tedjasaputra. Back: Joshua Wolff.

Joshua Wolff, Jenifer Buckley, Alexandra Graham, and Vince Tedjasaputra are part of an active Chicago STPF alumni community. 

Every year since 1973, growing numbers of AAAS STPF fellows have completed their fellowships and joined other alumni working in government agencies, nonprofits and businesses around the country. With new expertise and insight from their time in Washington, they form an integral part of the nation’s ability to address the most pressing policy questions of our time. For the four alumni highlighted here, building a community of former fellows in Chicago has provided mentorship, support and kinship as they work in parallel to advance public health goals.  

Alexandra Graham (2016-18 Executive Branch Fellow at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)) is the founder of a finance company that supports the healthcare and biotech sectors with financing solutions. From ambulance services to diagnostics laboratories, urgent care facilities and hospitals, she seeks to offer alternative financing for small businesses that often don’t qualify for bank loans. The idea for the company was inspired by her experience as a founder and owner of a pharmaceutical company in Ghana, which was forced to close due to a lack of access to financing. “I found out that many businesses here in the U.S. also have such challenges,” she says. “That gave me the incentive to help these companies succeed by giving them access to much-needed financing solutions.” She also consults for biotech and healthcare companies from the U.S. and Europe looking to expand into Africa.  

Graham’s fellowship placement at USAID was instrumental in broadening her understanding of global health dynamics. As a member of the leadership team at PEPFAR (the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), she contributed to HIV programming, monitoring and evaluation throughout several African nations. “I learned a lot about the various programs for health system strengthening across sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Europe – which interventions work, and which ones do not,” she reflected. In the second year of her fellowship, she focused on the Zika emergency program in Central and South America. “These experiences now inform my consulting work, helping companies at all stages – startups to multinational companies – navigate the complexities of establishing healthcare ventures in Africa.” 

Some of the biggest challenges in public health, Graham says, are just as critical in the U.S. as they are in developing nations. These include rebuilding primary health care, including routine immunization; increasing pandemic preparedness; addressing the ways that climate change is a major health threat; and fighting non-communicable diseases.  

Graham helped initiate the self-organized Chicago-area STPF alumni group, which she says is invaluable for offering a community of like-minded professionals for support and knowledge exchange. 

Joshua Wolff (2013-14 American Psychological Association Congressional Science & Engineering Fellow) is a social/behavioral scientist and child psychologist by training. Following his STPF years in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, he remained active in APA, the science society that sponsored his fellowship. Now, he is a Scientific Review Officer at the National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). (Note: these views are those of the author only, and do not necessarily reflect the position of the National Institutes of Health).  

Wolff believes that health equity is one of the most pressing policy issues in public health, which he learned firsthand while conducting his dissertation research at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Many of the families he worked with were immigrants, uninsured, and faced numerous other systemic barriers to obtaining life-saving treatment for their children. As a postdoctoral fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital, he has also worked with youth whose psychiatric symptoms were heavily influenced by prejudice and social intolerance. These experiences led him to the STPF program: “I wanted to acquire the public policy knowledge and skills necessary to address the health inequities that I kept observing,” he says. With limited government resources to respond to public health needs, Wolff states that identifying groups most likely to benefit from additional resources and the ability to evaluate the efficacy of prevention programs and treatments is essential. “This can’t be accomplished without good data, which is one of the reasons I am proud to work in the biomedical research sector at NINR/NIH,” he says. His role at the NINR includes facilitating the peer review process that ultimately influences funding decisions for research projects which will help illuminate how social and economic forces influence health inequities.  

“The [Chicago] STPF alumni group has been a great source of encouragement, particularly when I was starting at NINR/NIH,” Wolff says, noting that members of the group offered helpful advice for success as a new federal employee. Working in the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ regional office in Chicago has opened his eyes to the fact that it’s possible to have an impactful career as a federal employee outside of DC. 

Jenifer Buckley (2017-18 Executive Branch Fellow at U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)) directs the Special Projects and Process Improvement Team at the Chicago Department of Public Health, with the goal of what she calls “building a better bureaucracy.” Her position involves making administrative systems more efficient, a need particularly highlighted during the COVID emergency. In her view, public health in the U.S. would also benefit from funding that is less reactive and more comprehensive. In public health departments across the country, budgets are heavily dependent on federal grants that are targeted toward specific challenges. However, according to Buckley, “a more sustained and disease-agnostic approach would enable us to build a stronger organizational infrastructure, more proactively address social determinants of health and health disparities in our communities, and be better prepared for future emergencies.”   

Buckley used her fellowship at the EPA to explore her interest in identifying challenges and streamlining internal processes for large agencies. The fundamental questions that she’s interested in answering are the type that can help improve any organization, including who needs to be at the table to ensure that programs meet their intended goals, and how to ensure policies are implemented as intended. “The fellowship effected a mid-career pivot that I hadn’t expected,” she shared, noting that her previous career was in the non-profit sector in food and agriculture.  

After her fellowship, she followed her heart back to the Midwest to join the City of Chicago as a project manager in the reform unit of the city police department. “Nothing to do with food, agriculture, or environment,” she says, “but everything to do with how big-picture policy translates to real-world impact.” Buckley transferred to her current role at the public health department during the pandemic, and says that the monthly meetups with other STPF alumni offer a “social and intellectual fellowship of policy and public service-minded professionals.”  

Vince Tedjasaputra (2019-21 Executive Branch Fellow at the National Science Foundation (NSF)) is the Director of Science Communications at the American Lung Association. His role involves translating research results into publicly-accessible blogs, social media posts, interviews, and podcasts to demonstrate the impact of the organization’s funding efforts. He explained, “I try to bridge the gap between the research that we fund and the people that benefit from it.” The importance of, and need for, this type of work first became evident to him during his career as a lung disease researcher working with patients in clinical trials. “The human cost of research is often overlooked,” he says, noting that participants aren’t always communicated with about the research process or the importance of their contributions. “So, I would tell a story that made them the main character,” he says. “For me, the biggest thing was communicating in a way that is audience-focused.”  

During the civil rights reckoning of summer 2020, in the middle of his fellowship, he began thinking about how he could contribute to making access to scientific funding more equitable. Realizing that many large universities have internal resources for supporting grant proposals that smaller universities lack, he started a blog for NSF’s website called NSF 101 that sought to untangle the complex process of applying for funding. This focus on equity in science is evident when he shares that he considers one of the most pressing policy issues in public health to be the leaky STEM pipeline. The obstacles for women and people of color in academia are abundant, especially at the postdoc level, he noted. Without positions that offer financial security, many scientists simply can’t afford to continue their work.  

As for the support he’s found within the Chicago area STPF alumni group, “Whether you were a fellow in the ‘70s or just served last year, we still have that kinship,” Tedjasaputra says. “It’s like a secret handshake, being a AAAS [S&T Policy] Fellow.” 

Author

Elyse DeFranco

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