Managing public health problems in real time
With a focus on infectious disease epidemiology, Health and Wellbeing Sciences major Sydney Redepenning was tapped to provide her expertise in ways few students have. On top of handling a full course load, she is a teaching assistant and a member of the University of Minnesota’s public health response team.
She is also a writer and editor for the Osterholm Update, a weekly podcast in which U of M professor Michael Osterholm discusses and analyzes the latest information on COVID-19. Osterholm is the director of the University’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) and a leading expert on COVID-19.
Redepenning began her exploration into public health her freshman year in an honors seminar called “Battling the Bugs.” She didn’t know at the time what she wanted to major in, but she remembers loving the class. “I realized that I had the sort of natural ability to understand some of the public health problem solving,” she says.
She connected with the professor and became a teaching assistant the following semester. That was the spring of 2020. Then came COVID-19.
The pandemic created a lot of new work for her colleagues in public health and epidemiology, so Redepenning was called upon to fill in the gaps. She began teaching more and noticed that a lot of her students were Health and Wellbeing Sciences majors. “So I started looking into that and it seemed like a much better fit.”
In spring 2022, Redepenning taught her sixth class with professor Jill DeBoer, who divides her time between CIDRAP and the U of M's Health Emergency Response Office (HERO). Redepenning also works at HERO, helping it combine the best science policies with response plans.
During the lockdown, she wrote a training exercise for a theoretical return-to-campus scenario that addressed how to handle housing, transportation, contact tracing, quarantine sites, etc. University leaders drew several elements from this exercise as they refined plans for a safe return to campus.
Perhaps the biggest opportunity that arose during the pandemic was working on the Osterholm Update, which launched in March 2020. Redepenning learned how to write, edit, and produce content—a completely new skill set for her.
She started listening to the sound and feel of other podcasts and learned how to massage raw data into a compelling narrative. “My colleague said, you know, we have to keep in mind that if people just wanted numbers, they would look at graphs or the CDC website. We have to turn it into a story.”
The experience has taught her a lot about her own abilities. “Not only am I capable of creating content but it's content that people want to listen to,” she says. “That's what I learned from both teaching and from the podcast. And I think that is sort of the most surprising thing.”