Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Monday, October 22, 2012

Bakken looks forward to tackling environment, health

Erik Bakken

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A recommendation from a La Follette School professor led to a possible career path for Erik Bakken.

Since he was a junior at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Bakken knew he wanted to go on to graduate school in public affairs. The political science major learned about public affairs as a career path from professor David Weimer. "I took his introduction to public policy course, and that got me interested," Bakken says. "I also knew I wanted to go on and get more training, but I didn't want to earn a Ph.D. I really liked the applied problem-solving aspect of public affairs."

Bakken applied to La Follette and other schools, but he chose La Follette for its excellent education, the in-state tuition and because he was familiar with the campus and the city. An award from the La Follette School's Ina Jo Rosenberg and Shiri Eve Leah Gumbiner Fellowship was another factor. "The fellowship will allow me to wholeheartedly focus on my academic and research careers without financial worry," Bakken says.

Noah and Shelley Rosenberg established the fellowship in 2010 at the La Follette School to honor Noah's younger sister, Ina Jo Rosenberg, and her daughter, Shiri Eve Leah Gumbiner, whoin 2002 and 2005, respectively.

Staying on the UW-Madison campus means Bakken can keep his position as a project assistant with David A. Kindig, professor emeritus of population health sciences, at the Population Health Institute. Bakken started there in January 2012, halfway through his senior year after Weimer alerted him to the open position. "Originally I accepted the job to merely gain some hands-on research and policy experience," Bakken says, "but I have now become highly interested in the population health field. Although I first looked to study environmental policy at the La Follette School, this position has shown me the link between health and the environment, and that these fields are not mutually exclusive."

This multidisciplinary nature of public affairs is what draws Bakken to the field. "That I can study health and the environment, that's really appealing to me, and you can work in the public or private sector," says Bakken, who started La Follette's Master of Public Affairs degree program in fall 2012. He plans to use his elective courses to study environmental policy.

Bakken and Kindig have co-authored a study of the community benefit nonprofit hospitals in Wisconsin generate that the Wisconsin Medical Journal published in October. "For hospitals to have nonprofit status, they need to provide the community with benefits such as emergency room care, unreimbursed Medicaid services and other subsidized services," Bakken says. "We went through 2009 tax forms to collect data on how hospitals reported their community benefit, and now we have an article under consideration at a journal."

A second part of that research project will look at the history of the tax-exempt standards for nonprofit hospitals and the national policy implications of changing those standards, Bakken says.

Bakken also works on the blog Kindig edits, Improving Population Health.

Bakken practices his management skills by helping with logistics for a Population Health Institute project to research multisectorial partnerships that improve the health of a particular population group. "The study is looking at partnerships involving businesses, universities and hospitals that have developed local projects to improve population health," Bakken says. "The goal is to find out why each succeeded."

Another project, the Roadmaps to Health Prize, recognizes local groups across the country for their advancements toward better population health. "The grants could go to a neighborhood organization, a community or to a multicounty collaboration," Bakken says. He will help with the selection process.

Once the hospital research project winds up, Bakken hopes to work on health-environment issues such as food policy and brownfields, which are abandoned or underused industrial sites where environmental contamination might impede redevelopment.

"Ultimately, I am interested in researching the political ecology of changes to the physical environment that improve health and of detriments such as the conjunction of environmental inequity and health disparities," he says.