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Public health preparedness master’s students take on COVID-19-related projects

When COVID-19 gained pandemic status in the spring, students in health-related fields across the country saw topics from their courses and training become a reality.

For Heather Schubert and Jennie Kriznik, recent graduates of the master of professional studies in homeland security (public health preparedness option) offered online through Penn State World Campus and faciliated by Penn State College of Medicine, the pandemic offered a unique opportunity to apply their education to a once-in-a-lifetime event.

During their final semester, Schubert and Kriznik each enrolled in an independent studies course that allowed them to pursue projects in topics unrelated to their required courses.

“Since I’m in the public health field, I decided to address the COVID-19 pandemic since something like this may never happen again in my lifetime,” said Schubert, who graduated in August. “I felt like I needed to be a part of some kind of a response and information-giving.”

For her project, Schubert developed a curriculum for high-schoolers on the public health preparedness field and how it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The curriculum focuses on what people can do in response to the pandemic and how to get accurate information to the public,” said Schubert. “I’ve seen a lot of misinformation, so it’s important to direct people to good information and teach them how to then interpret that information.”

In partnership with the Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute and the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, Schubert also worked on developing broader curriculum that teaches biology, epidemiology and public health in high schools. She is exploring ways she can distribute her own curriculum to schools.

For students interested in pursuing higher education in the public health field, the Penn State World Campus public health preparedness option teaches students to be leaders in response to natural and man-made disasters with a focus on the medical and public health sectors. Course work explores social and ethical issues in homeland security, preparedness for disaster and terrorist emergencies, critical infrastructure protection of health care systems, and more.

The program was the country’s first online homeland security curricula developed through a partnership with a medical school. The courses are taught by faculty in the College of Medicine’s Department of Public Health Sciences.

“I always enjoy challenging students to step beyond the standard curriculum and pursue a dynamic topic of their choosing,” said Dr. Gene Lengerich, professor of public health sciences and Schubert and Kriznik’s adviser. “We need people with specific expertise and training in public health preparedness to lead us through this pandemic.”

For Jennie Kriznik, a child life specialist at Penn State Children’s Hospital, the pandemic changed her job responsibilities, and the way she interacted with and cared for pediatric patients and their families. This experience prompted her to incorporate the pandemic and her passion for pediatrics into her individual studies course.

Using data collected in countries that faced the pandemic before the U.S., Kriznik created a comprehensive review of medical literature that examined the epidemiology of COVID-19 in children over time. Kriznik reviewed incidence rates of the virus in children, clinical presentation, and virus reproduction rates to determine how contagious the virus was among children.

Along with the knowledge she gained from her project, Kriznik said she’s confident that the skills she learned through her online master’s degree will help her further her career in pediatrics.

“One of the main reasons I chose the public health preparedness program was because I wanted to get more involved and use the skills that I’ve gained as a child life specialist to provide pediatric services at a disaster response level,” said Kriznik.

Read more about these projects in this Penn State News story.

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