An Interview with Director of Graduate Studies for Civic Engagement Amy Kircher

After years working as an epidemiologist for the US Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) in Colorado, Amy Kircher came back to Minnesota to work on the research aspects of homeland security and public health. Dr. Kircher, currently codirects the University’s Strategic Partnerships and Research Collaborative (SPARC) and serves as a senior advisor for the Food Protection and Defense Institute, a Homeland Security Center of Excellence. After being at the University for 10 years, Dr. Kircher has been named the new Director of Graduate Studies for the MPS in Civic Engagement.

From Natural Disasters to Outbreaks

With her extensive background in public health, Dr. Kircher has a unique perspective on the pandemic. Her work at USNORTHCOM was initially focused on terrorism post-9/11, but quickly transitioned to disaster preparedness and response, and she supported responses to Hurricane Katrina, widlfires, and the H1N1 pandemic.

Amy Kircher head shot

“It’s great for me to see all the vaccine distribution plans now because we drafted many plans for those in the mid-2000s,” she says. “And I'm sure they've been edited, but we considered many unique scenarios that are coming to fruition now.”

She explains that with each new threat, new plans and adjustments have to be made based on the behavior of the virus and how local, state, and federal public health agencies function, as well as what’s happening internationally.

“You prepare based on the assumptions that you make at the beginning of a planning period.” For example, seasonal influenza appears completely differently than the Ebola virus, which behaves differently than COVID.

Dr. Kircher has put her extensive experience to work during the past year, as requests for support came in from the University, the community, and industry colleagues. For instance, she helped create a plan to bring slaughterhouses and food production plants back online. She fielded calls from religious communities and youth sports organizations, asking if and how they could safely resume. She also shared her expertise in public health with the Office of the Vice President for Research where SPARC is located.

Maintaining Motivation

The ability for people to gather and organize has obviously been affected by the pandemic. But Dr. Kircher believes that there are still a lot of ways people can stay engaged.

"I feel very passionate that we have to train and build a cohort that is willing to lead those efforts.”

“I think we have the benefit of lots of tools that we didn't have 20 years ago,” she says. Almost everyone has a cell phone; we have Zoom and Google Meet. We have social media platforms and the internet.

“We're just doing it in a more cautious way to protect the health and safety of our communities. And, I would argue, we still can hold some of those in-person things in responsible ways. We did it this summer. People wore masks. Minneapolis and Saint Paul tried to be respectful of protesters but also encouraged them to wear masks and be socially distanced.”

Why This Degree, Why Now

Three smiling young people

This past summer in Minneapolis was unlike any other. We witnessed a level of social awareness and activism that can hopefully be sustained, even after a vaccine for COVID-19 becomes widely available.

“I think we all were awakened by what happened with George Floyd," Dr. Kircher says. "Certainly this election cycle demonstrated that every vote counts. Within the last few years, we've seen people run for office who would have never imagined running before. We're seeing young people wanting to be engaged in their community. I think we’re seeing this transition where people want to be civically engaged again.”

Who Should Consider the CivE Program?

“I think there are a lot of different types of people who may want this particular degree for very different reasons.” The degree, she continues, is for anyone who wants to work in community advocacy, public health, government, elections, education, employment, or on inequities and social justice issues.

“This is a real opportunity for not only people who are starting their career, but also people who want a career change or that type of individual who finds a passion or is empowered by a different kind of engagement, maybe initiated by what happened this summer in Minneapolis.”

Building a Program for the Future

“My passion,” Dr. Kircher says, “is how do we create healthy communities and places for people to live and work. At my core, this is who I am and what I believe, and I don't think we do it alone. It takes volunteers. It takes people to be on the school board, the park and rec board. It takes people to run for elected office; it takes businesses to engage and believe in their community. I feel very passionate that we have to train and build a cohort that is willing to lead those efforts.”  

She is excited to share her experiences and engage her colleagues in building a program “that's dynamic and adaptable to the world we're living in.” Her goal is that when students graduate, “they have a whole toolkit of things that they can leverage and utilize to be productive.”

Dr. Kircher Fun Facts

  • A good portion of her career working for the Department of Defense as an epidemiologist included 10 years of disaster response at NORTHCOM.
  • She had an office in Cheyenne Mountain. In addition to her day job there, they also tracked Santa!
  • She and her colleagues are in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in a very timely exhibit called Outbreak.
  • She is a data nerd and teaching Data for Decision Making is one of her favorite things to do.
  • She plans to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro by 2024 with her family.