Michele Coleman wants to know why people make the decisions they do about their health to help them lead healthier lives.
To that end, the public affairs and public health dual-degree candidate is presenting a paper about the influence of religion on the abortion decision-making process and experience at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America conference April 30-May 3 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Coleman prepared the paper, "Managing Religions and Morality within the Abortion Decision: Data from Qualitative Interviews with Women Obtaining Abortions in the U.S.," as part of an internship with the Guttmacher Institute in New York in summer 2013. She also presented the paper to the National Abortion Federation in April 2014.
"The paper examines the categories of responses women gave as to how they determined to have an abortion within their own often conflicting moral and religious beliefs," says Coleman, who conducted this qualitative research and generated her hypothesis from an existing dataset. "I also highlight potential policy and legislative implications of my findings."
"Overall, this paper adds to the body of knowledge surrounding the abortion decision-making process, theorizes the development of abortion stigma, and is one of the first to examine the components of religion and a behavior theory," she says.
Throughout high school, Coleman thought she would become a physician. "I always felt strongly about people having the right to live healthy lives," she says, "and I thought being a physician was the way to ensure that."
Then Coleman got to college and learned this belief was not entirely true. "I realized my drive to make change cannot come only at the individual level of providing care," she says. "Instead, it needs to be made at broader levels through the actions of many. These realizations triggered my interest in population health."
As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Coleman twice traveled to East Africa to research and implement programs to improve women's health. One of her proudest achievements was receiving the Wisconsin Idea Undergraduate Fellowship Grant to conduct her original infant mortality research at a district hospital in Uganda. "This project provided postnatal education to mothers who gave birth at the hospital in hopes of lowering infant mortality during the first week of life," Coleman says. "I tracked the infant's health status one week later to determine program effectiveness."
Coleman graduated in 2011 with a bachelor of science in community and nonprofit leadership studies and a certificate in global health. After graduation, she spent nine months with AmeriCorps as a volunteer and development coordinator at the University of Illinois YMCA, a nonprofit that fosters student leadership through social justice issues. In this position she built capacity by expanding the Y's volunteer programming and strengthening the structure and management of the organization's largest fundraiser.
Coleman enrolled in the University of Wisconsin–Madison's master of public health degree program in 2012. During the summer of 2013, she further explored global health by traveling to rural Kenya to survey family planning beliefs and behavior. Coleman created and administered in-depth interviews and focus groups, analyzed the data, and made recommendations on how to improve the family planning programs in the community for the nonprofit she worked with, Health by Motorbike, based out of the university. To begin conversations about family planning, she taught more than 200 women how to use the natural family planning method.
She added the La Follette School's Master of Public Affairs degree program in 2013. "As an MPH student, I quickly realized my interest in public health policy and saw the potential it has to improve population health," Coleman says.
"I took Susan Yackee's policymaking process class and Tom Oliver's Health Systems, Policy, and Management class in my first year," Coleman says. "I was instantly hooked and decided to apply to the dual degree program and learn about the world of public policy. The public health program provided me with the crucial knowledge of population health. Coupling this with the intense skill-building and rigorous academics of the La Follette School was one of the best career decisions I made."
Coleman says she appreciates the small size of the La Follette School. "Most classes at a big university like Wisconsin simply teach from books," she says. "However, the professors at the La Follette School spend time developing a unique, tailored curriculum that optimizes learning. Additionally, small class sizes allow students the opportunity to get to know the professors, their research and areas of expertise, and to create connections for future employment."
In addition to her research for the Guttmacher Institute, Coleman is interning with the Wisconsin Medical Society. She is conducting research and analysis for internal policy development and for initiatives on topics of physician satisfaction, urban and rural medicine, health literacy, and electronic cigarettes.
Coleman also has been a teaching assistant for several courses at the university, including this semester's Global Women's Health and Human Rights taught by a professor in the Department of Gender and Women's Studies. She volunteers with the Dane County's new free women's health clinic, Share the Health. "My work with the clinic is a great opportunity to put my public health and public management skills into practice for a project I am passionate about," she says.
After she graduates this May, Coleman hopes to work at the intersection of public health and public policy to advance women's health domestically and abroad. She also wants to continue researching ways policy can improve health. "My passion in life is improving women's health in all facets, ranging from guaranteeing access to quality health services, to advocating for comprehensive sexual education, to researching effective family planning programs," Coleman says. "I am excited to apply my new skills and move this field forward."