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Managing Public Health Problems in Real Time

Sydney Redepenning stands in front of the windows in Bruininks Hall

Sydney Redepenning

What started as a part-time teaching job blossomed into a series of remarkable roles for Health and Wellbeing Sciences student Sydney Redepenning. With a focus on infectious disease epidemiology, Sydney has been 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’s public health response team.

She is also a writer and editor for the Osterholm Update, a weekly podcast in which Dr. Michael Osterholm discusses and analyzes the latest information on COVID-19. Dr. Osterholm is the director of the University’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) and a leading expert on COVID-19.

A Door Opens

Sydney Redepenning stands in front of the windows in Bruininks Hall

Sydney 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 connected with the professor and became her teaching assistant the following semester. That was the spring of 2020. We all know what came next.

The pandemic created a lot of new work for her colleagues in public health and epidemiology, so Sydney 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.”

She is currently teaching her sixth class with professor Jill DeBoer who divides her time between CIDRAP and the Health Emergency Response Office (HERO). Sydney also works at HERO, helping them combine the best science policies with their 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 leadership drew several elements from this exercise as they refined plans for a safe return to campus.

On-the-Job Lessons

Another opportunity that arose during the pandemic was working on the Osterholm Update, which launched in March 2020. Sydney learned how to write, edit, and produce content, a completely new skill set for her.

“Not only am I capable of creating content but it's content that people want to listen to.”

“Dr. Osterholm really wanted to keep the editing done by one of us,” she explains, “because we know the public health terms, we know how it's supposed to sound in terms of the message. He didn't want to outsource that to someone who might not have the same public health background.”

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.”

Trusting the Process… and Herself

To generate new ideas for the podcast, Sydney keeps a running list of topics that they haven’t covered recently. The team also takes questions from listeners’ emails and adds that to what Dr. Osterholm would like to address. They meet on Mondays to narrow it down to four or five topics.

Sydney Redepenning stands in front of a window with the West Bank and Washington Avenue Bridge behind her

A few hours later, the research team will meet to plan a rough idea of the story and divide up the research. They collaborate on one shared document, and by Tuesday evening they’re usually finished.

The host of the podcast also reviews the document to determine how to ask questions that will shape the narrative properly. They record Wednesday mornings and Sydney starts editing when she’s done teaching. She gets up early to post it on Thursday mornings.

“Things are changing so fast we can't really work ahead,” she says. “We have to write everything Monday and Tuesday, because if we write too far in advance it's outdated by then.”

The experience 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.”

Not surprisingly, Sydney is thinking about getting a PhD, but she will be plenty busy this fall when she starts her Master of Public Health in Environmental Health here at UMTC.

Valuable Courses

Infectious Disease Modeling
“It was a really fun experience and a good way to get information that I wouldn't get elsewhere.”

Grant Writing
“What's really been interesting is seeing what it looks like in an academic setting and then seeing how it actually works in a real-world setting.”

Sociology of Health and Illness
“(Health inequities) are something that we should bring into the discussions about every topic, and that idea came from the classes I took.”

Faculty Shout-outs

Professor Jill Deboer: “I cannot thank her enough for everything she has done for me. When she couldn't make it to class she could have canceled, but instead she believed in me enough to teach the lecture myself.”

Dr. Michael Osterholm: “I really appreciate the amount of confidence he has in my ability to do the work that I do, because that's where my confidence in part came from and it's how I got these opportunities.”

Pro Tips for Students

  • Stay organized. “I plan out my weeks almost down to the minute of what I need to do and when I need to do it.”
  • Know your limits. “Know when to ask professors for help and when to go to office hours.”
  • Use your advisor’s knowledge. “My advisor, Karen Moon, helped me figure out how I could graduate early. I would definitely encourage everyone to ask questions because advisors definitely know a lot and can help.”
  • Put yourself out there. “The only way I ended up with my job was because I said, if you need a teaching assistant, please let me know. Just throw yourself out there at as many things as you're interested in.”