Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Simon tackles how social problems affect health

Norma-Jean Simon


After graduating in 2013, Norma-Jean Simon became a research associate with the University of Michigan's Child Health Evaluation and Research Unit.

Norma-Jean Simon first began to see how economics, culture, the environment and education affect people's health when she traveled to the Dominican Republic as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

When she returned to Wisconsin and interned with the city of Milwaukee Health Department, Simon found many of the same complex policy, economic and health relationships she observed abroad, and she resolved to eventually return to school to earn a master of public health degree.

"I ultimately decided to do a dual degree in public affairs because creating environments and communities that support health is greatly facilitated by policies that are or are not actively in place within a society," says Simon, who enrolled in the dual-degree program in public health and public policy in fall 2009.

The flexibility of the La Follette program prompted Simon to choose UW. "I was only interested in doing a dual-degree program when I applied to graduate school," Simon says. "It was easy to be attracted to La Follette because of the excellent faculty and school reputation. However, I ultimately chose the La Follette School because of the flexibility within the dual-degree program to truly focus on policy, evaluation and the broader determinants of health not just the administration of health care."

Simon sees an intertwined and reciprocal relationship between educational policy and health. "For this reason, I really wanted to stay away from focusing on traditional health policies that address access and the provision of health care but do not necessarily encompass some of the more complex social issues that impact health such as literacy and the attainment of a high school diploma," she says. "I felt this aspect was lacking in other programs I had applied to for graduate school."

Simon's interest in health and education deepened after graduation while she worked through AmeriCorps at a Madison community center where she helped to develop a teen employment program for at-risk youth.

After she started at La Follette, she worked at Hewlett-Packard for a short time as a data analyst for the state Medicaid program. "I learned how to query data and pulled a lot of data, some of which was on expenditures for immigrant emergencies and prenatal/maternal health services," says Simon. She found out about the position through the La Follette School's jobs listserv. "A former student in Population Health Sciences who took a number of classes at La Follette posted the position," Simon says. "I was hired last summer and so was another La Follette grad at the same time. This is a really good example of how the connections at La Follette really help us move to another career."

Now Simon works full time with the UW–Madison Carbone Cancer Center and Department of Population Health Sciences as a project coordinator and research specialist. "One project is a community-academic partnership in which we are evaluating a cancer program that aims to help patients navigate the complex health-care system," says Simon, who is working on her degree part time. "I work with a UW professor and research team, a hospital administrator, and a team of nurses to develop and evaluate the program to better coordinate patient care."

The other project is more concentrated on survey design and data analysis of a migrant HIV/AIDS survey. "The data collected will lead to a better understanding of how health, health policy and the practice of seeking health care cross borders," she says.

For both projects, Simon finds her La Follette training to be beneficial. "First, concise writing skills and the skill of crafting an argument have been particularly useful," she says, "especially for program management activities like progress report documentation, grant writing and protocol applications. Management skills in general have also been practiced as I have learned to recognize and work within the structures of several separate organizations requiring sometimes conflicting processes. Both of the projects I work on require contracts and the dissemination of funding among different organizations."

The analysis skills have made data in general less intimidating, Simon notes. "I work with data regularly and am better able to analyze and consider the limitations of data because of the classes I have had at La Follette."

Simon also appreciates being able to apply economics to health care. "Sometimes in public health we forget to consider the economic argument for health policies or services," she says. "Through the La Follette classes, I better understand how to discuss and quantify negative and positive externalities and discuss how markets do or do not work with regard to health."

The school's small size is another benefit for Simon. "Professors at the school are among the leaders in their fields, and the professors know everyone by name," she says. "I feel like it has been easy to approach professors with questions or for clarification. Administrative staff also know a good number of the students and are attentive to student needs."

"The La Follette classes are very challenging and engaging," she adds. "Students show up prepared for class because they are interested and are invested in learning the material. If students complain about the classes, it is more often than not about the amount of work we have to complete and not about whether a class has value. I think those are positive complaints because it means the classes are challenging."

Simon has pursued her interests in education and health through an independent study and field work. When she first enrolled, she explored school accountability measures with professor John Witte and La Follette alumni mentor Robert Soldner, director of school management Services at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. In addition, she has worked on an obesity prevention project as a field student with the Department of Population Health Sciences.

"I have done a lot of policy research on evidence-based policies to prevent or mitigate obesity in Wisconsin," Simon says. "I have helped gather information regarding how community members can work with restaurants to implement policies that offer consumers healthier food options. I have also spent a great deal of time researching the federal menu nutrition labeling requirements passed under the Affordable Care Act and tried to assess what the impact might be on Wisconsin restaurants and consumers. Furthermore, I have been part of discussions considering the creation of a food policy council and a Wisconsin-specific restaurant-menu-labeling program for consumers."

Once Simon graduates, she would like to work in a governmental or non-profit organization that is interested in health. "I also would like to work more broadly in an office like the Government Accountability Office where I would have the opportunity to evaluate and consider a number of policies that involve intersecting agencies," she says. "I really can't think of any other profession more satisfying than serving other people. Public servants work in a lot of different capacities, but I do think the core commonality among all public servants is that their job is to consider and promote the well-being of others."

— updated November 26, 2013