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Laura Jacobson: Learning to publish

Woman with short blond hair in a yellow top smiles at the camera

Laura Jacobson: Learning to publish

A PhD student gets her own manuscript published in a peer reviewed journal

Faculty-student research collaborations are a critical part of graduate work, and students are often co-authors of papers published in peer reviewed journals. But rarely do students submit their own research and manuscripts through the peer review process. Laura Jacobson, a third-year doctoral student in the PhD in Health Systems and Policy program (HS&P), did just that.

In the article “President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) Policy Process and the Conversation around HIV/AIDS in the United States”, published this fall in the Journal of Development Policy and Practice, Jacobson examines a policy enacted by the George W. Bush administration to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic primarily in Africa.

“This paper is quite different from anything I’ve worked on before,” Jacobson said. “In fact, I originally wrote it for PAP 616, the Policy Process class that is one of our required courses in the HSP program. The assignment was to pick a policy and analyze it with established policy process frameworks. The curious nature of PEPFAR with its enormous budget and unique bipartisan support made it a compelling line of inquiry and I thought it could make for an interesting class project.”

Dr. Sherril Gelmon, Professor of Public Health and director of the HS&P program noted that it is always impressive to see a student take the initiative to submit a manuscript, amongst all their other personal and professional commitments and the demands of a doctoral program. “With support she received from Dr. Hal Nelson (PSU Public Administration Assistant Professor), who reviewed the manuscript, Laura took a course paper and turned it into a now published paper on a topic that she cares about, that is related to her anticipated dissertation research.” Gelmon said, “That is a great accomplishment for a PhD student while she is still in the coursework phase of her doctoral program.”

“I became interested in PEPFAR, a policy enacted by the George W. Bush administration to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic primarily in Africa, when I was part of a research team in Uganda during my MPH,” Jacobson explained. “PEPFAR’s unprecedented $18B budget supplied medications, created facilities, and trained health workers to combat HIV/AIDS; it has saved countless lives. Yet, it also had many faults and unintended consequences; PEPFAR focuses narrowly on a single disease, neglecting many other areas of need and also contributed to instability in the public health system as workers left their jobs at public hospitals to work at PEPFAR funded, HIV-focused NGOs. I find those types of policy paradoxes really fascinating and important to learn from.”

Jacobson adds that hers is a retrospective study that uses two well-known policy process frameworks to organize and understand some of the factors that led to the enactment of PEPFAR. “I used mentions of HIV/AIDS in presidential speeches as an indicator of presidential attention to the issue over the 22-year period from the first diagnosis of AIDS in the United States to the enactment of PEPFAR (1981–2003). I also performed a content analysis of a sample of The New York Times articles to assess the narrative around HIV/AIDS during the same time period. I found a very steady count of mentions in speech data for the first two decades, followed by a drastic spike in the years close to PEPFAR’s enactment. In The New York Times articles, I noted a narrative shift as the very stigmatized condition evolved to one that garnered more sympathy in the media. These findings are consistent with the two frameworks I note in the article.”

This type of retrospective study may be useful because looking back at the past can offer insight into the context around policy change and may offer insight for the current and future public health challenges that are highly stigmatized such as abortion or opioid use disorder.

Originally from Wisconsin, Jacobson received her BS (Genetics) and MPH, as well as a Graduate Certificate in Global Health, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

She decided to pursue a PhD in health systems and policy because she enjoys research, writing, and collaborating with teams. In addition, she is seeking to expand her professional network in Portland and develop her own research ideas. “I also saw an exciting opportunity in joining a new school of public health and I wanted to be a part of building and shaping it, in some small way.”

She is in the third year of the program, now preparing for her comprehensive examination. While she has not decided on her specific dissertation question, she is interested in sexual and reproductive healthcare and how policies designed to expand access impact the quality of care delivery, particularly in abortion care. Since 2019 she has worked as a research consultant with Ibis Reproductive Health. When she finishes her degree, she hopes to work in academia or academia-adjacent.

She has lived in Portland for the past seven years and loves the area. When not studying or at work, she adores spending time with her two young boys and even found time, in pre-pandemic times, to paddle with Planned Parenthood’s dragon boat team.