Emma Johnson standing outside Jepson Hall

Emma Johnson, '22

March 30, 2022
Senior mines data to improve public policy and health outcomes

Emma Johnson, ’22, loves data. Specifically, she is fascinated by health informatics, which uses data to influence public policy to improve health care outcomes.

As a sophomore, she took Introduction to Healthcare Studies with Dr. Rick Mayes. “I was sitting in class when it hit me—this is what I am meant to do,” she said. “I can care for people by working on health care policy.”

Now the senior from Germantown, Tenn., explores the intersection of health care and policy through her interdisciplinary majors in leadership studies and health studies. She also is majoring in Russian studies.

Institutional failure and reform have been recurring themes in her leadership studies classes. “Studying institutional failure on health care and other systemic issues inspires me to think about making positive changes,” Johnson said.

Two internships have given her the chance to get some hands-on experience in addressing health care challenges. In summer 2020, she interned remotely with MATTER, a global non-governmental organization that helps people launch projects to improve communities through education, nutritious food, and health care.

“My third week on the job, my supervisor asked me to write a white paper summarizing a master’s thesis on a topic I knew nothing about,” she said. “I drew on the argument mapping I learned in Dr. Javier Hidalgo’s Critical Thinking class. Using the objectives my boss had outlined for the white paper, I constructed a central argument and then retrofitted the thesis material to that argument. My boss loved it!”

This past summer, the Richmond Scholar completed her academically grounded Jepson internship as a public health informatics policy intern with the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. To fulfill its mission to support the work of state and territorial health agencies, the nonprofit collaborates with several federal government agencies.

“My department focused on building public health capacity to meet the needs that arise in a pandemic and strengthening the technology infrastructure to support the use of health data,” Johnson said. “I gave a presentation to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials on how to use health data infrastructure more effectively. Health informatics is not typically taught at the undergraduate level, so it was really exciting for me to explore this through my internship.”  

Now she is conducting COVID-19 health policy research for her senior capstone in her health studies major, with Mayes serving as her faculty mentor.

“I am mining data to understand what policies worked and didn’t work in the pandemic by comparing the efficacy of COVID management across states,” she said.

Using data to support better health outcomes is not without its own issues, Johnson admitted. She has grappled with some of these issues in her Medical Ethics and Leadership Ethics classes.

“How do you respect a patient’s right to privacy, while also sharing health data that is important to understanding a pandemic?” she asked. “It’s a trade-off between individual and collective rights.”

After her May graduation, Johnson hopes to work in public sector health care consulting or for a federal health care agency, she said.

“I am especially interested in a career in health informatics—the science of using data, information, and knowledge to improve human health and the delivery of health care services.”