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Public health graduate puts knowledge to use during COVID-19 pandemic

By Kelly Jordan | Emory Report | May 4, 2020

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Rollins graduate Cassie Kersten recently was selected by her undergraduate institution, the University of Minnesota-Rochester, to be featured on the local bus system. This photograph was taken for that purpose. Photo by Sarah Vitel Photography.

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In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cassie Kersten has been actively involved with both the state and federal responses through engagement with the Georgia Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Kersten graduates with a master in public health in global epidemiology from Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health. 

Using knowledge gleaned from coursework and experience she had developed as co-president of the Student Outbreak and Response Team, she is already assisting with data cleanup and test requests for GDPH (where she is a contractor), and is actively involved with the CDC’s Community Interventions Task Force, where she has been collecting and interpreting data on social distancing measures throughout the pandemic, focusing primarily on K-12 school closures.

“It’s been incredible to be part of the active response for a pandemic at multiple levels,” she says. “It can’t be overstated how vital Rollins was in facilitating important connections with different agencies, organizations and people who have helped to guide my future career goals and enabled me to feel like I’m part of the public health community.

“To say that I’ve been able to have a role in both the state and federal responses to COVID-19, and that I’ve been an active participant in both, has been so meaningful.”  

Though Kersten’s passions for emergency preparedness and response didn’t coalesce until her involvement with SORT, her early interest in public health took root during the last semester of her undergraduate education at the University of Minnesota-Rochester. 

To fulfill a final degree requirement, she registered for a course that gave her an opportunity to collaborate with a local health department to complete a community needs assessment in 2016. She felt everything click into place while working alongside epidemiologists and public health professionals.

“I said to myself, this is what I want,” she recalls. “Public health involves working with people and directly making a change while using evidence-based science to create that change.” 

Willingness to ‘do the hard thing’

Kersten spent the next two years working on cancer research at the Mayo Clinic and volunteering in a cancer ward — one where her uncle was once a patient. Through that experience, she saw the importance of looking at big-picture social determinants of health, which led her to pursue her MPH at Rollins.

Kersten has been an active member of the Rollins community from the get-go. She was a vocal Rollins Ambassador for the Department of Epidemiology and led multiple SORT initiatives — in partnership with co-president and friend Rachel Usher during her time with the group. 

Among her proudest accomplishments are assisting with emergency preparation planning during Super Bowl LIII; implementing a flu clinic at Rollins in partnership with Student Health Services to provide seasonal influenza vaccines to more than 120 graduate students; and organizing a mixer with Rollins’ Office of Career Development that featured emergency preparedness leader Stephen C. Redd and brought together CDC employees, Emory’s Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response, Rollins students and Rollins alumni for meaningful conversation and connection.  

“When I think of Cassie, the qualities that come to mind are her candor, her extroverted nature and her willingness to ‘do the hard thing,’” notes Allison Chamberlain, research assistant professor, who served as Kersten’s thesis advisor and a guide during her time as co-president of SORT.

“She constantly seeks out opportunities to engage, whether that be with community partners, fellow students or in class,” Chamberlain says. “She lives the motto ‘half of life is just showing up.’ But Cassie does more than just show up — she finds ways to engage, and, when appropriate, to lead.”  

Preparing for the next disaster

For the past two years, Kersten has worked with the CDC in a Rollins Earn and Learn position, which led her to her current work with the organization on the COVID-19 response.

She also was able to incorporate her CDC experience to inform her thesis, which focused on the preparedness of school districts around the country to implement school closures and mitigate unintended consequences for students and families during a pandemic.  

With her thesis and classwork now complete, Kersten will soon enter the work force full-time as an analyst at High Street Consulting in Alexandria, Virginia, where she will work on projects merging emergency management and public health. She plans to continue assisting the Georgia Department of Public Health on nights and weekends.  

As she looks at a promising career ahead, Kersten hopes to do impactful work. “I’d love to make a wide-scale impact on emergency preparedness; improving it so that by the time the next disaster comes we’re ready and can lead an equitable, coordinated response,” she says.