Q&A with SPHIS Alumnus, Allen Rakotoniaina, MPH

Name: Allen Rakotoniaina, MPH
Gradation Date: 2016
SPHIS Degree: Bachelor of Science in Public Health

How did you become interested in public health?

My interest in public health was catalyzed through a high school extracurricular program (“Future Problem Solving”) I participated in. Each year, students are given a topic to research, identify challenges and corresponding solutions within a certain scope of said topic, and develop an action plan to address the most salient challenge identified.

One year, I remember the topic was related to food safety. My research led me to a documentary, “Food, Inc.,” which delves into the issues surrounding the global food system—particularly the population health and environmental impacts. I was enthralled by the impacts something as seemingly simple as the food we produce and eat can have on our local, national, and global communities and health systems.

What was your experience like as an undergraduate student in public health?

When I came to UofL as an undergraduate student in 2012, there was no public health program for me to directly pursue. Thus, I initially studied political science and biology, which later transitioned to political science and international health studies. When I saw that an undergraduate public health program was being developed (I kept tabs on the website), I switched my course of study to public health while retaining my political science minor. I was part of UofL’s inaugural undergraduate cohort in public health.

As an undergraduate student, I liked to stay busy. Outside of class, I worked as a Cardinal Ambassador (university tour guide) for three years and a Student Orientation Staffer for two years, while also serving a brief internship with the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness (LMPHW). I was an active member of the raiseRED Dance Marathon since its inception in 2013-2014, serving one year as a Team Leader and two years as an Executive Board member. Additionally, I served as an Honors program peer mentor and was an active member of Greek Life, holding multiple leadership positions within my chapter throughout my four years as an undergraduate.

SPHIS set the table for me to develop a foundation in, and ultimately pursue, my passions within public health. I obtained my initial public health internship with LMPHW through a relationship with an SPHIS professor. I was able to travel to Guangzhou, China and study China’s health and environmental systems through SPHIS. Multiple faculty and staff played a key role in my qualification for, and admission to, George Washington (GW) Milken Institute School of Public Health. Additionally, the systems thinking approach encouraged by the faculty at SPHIS has allowed me to analyze complex issues and work collaboratively with others. These are two foundational skills I used every day in my graduate program and continue to use in my day-to-day role.

What did you do after earning your undergraduate degree?

Two weeks after my undergraduate commencement, I moved to Washington, D.C. to pursue a Master of Public Health degree, with a concentration in Health Policy, at Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington (GW) University. While in graduate school, I served as a program coordinator for one of the university’s premier leadership development programs. Our clients included students, faculty members, government and non-profit employees, and corporate teams from the Washington, D.C. metro area. The program sought to build self-efficacy within teams, with the aim of improving these teams’ effectiveness and impact within the surrounding community.

What have you been doing since completing your MPH? Where are you working?

I graduated GW in May 2018, and remained in the Washington, D.C. metro area as a Research and Evaluation Analyst at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) in Arlington, Virginia. ASTHO is the national nonprofit organization representing public health agencies in the United States, the U.S. Territories, and the District of Columbia. ASTHO tracks, evaluates, and advises the chief health officials of these jurisdictions on the impact and formation of health policy and provides them with guidance and technical assistance on improving the nation’s health.

In my current role as an Analyst on ASTHO’s Research & Evaluation Team, I support a cross-cutting portfolio through the measurement and evaluation of ASTHO’s strategic and operational plan, as well as assist program teams in the conceptualization, data collection, and analysis of programmatic research projects. We work in a variety of topic areas, so I’m involved in everything from chronic disease, maternal and child health, and opioids to emergency preparedness and environmental health.

On a daily basis, I’m designing and validating surveys and project evaluation plans, interviewing public health experts, analyzing survey response data to identify trends, developing reports based on that data, and assisting with dissemination (e.g. developing abstracts, journal manuscripts, and meeting/conference presentations). Ultimately, the data I help analyze and frame guides state and territorial health officials as they implement state- and territory-wide health priorities, as well influences federal policy priorities as part of ASTHO’s federal advocacy work. 

In addition to my role at ASTHO, I volunteer my remaining time as a Policy Officer for the Alliance for Food & Health (AFH), a multi-stakeholder coalition that aims to integrate the food and agriculture community into the global health community’s efforts to combat diet-related noncommunicable diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. I serve as the primary author of the organization’s white papers, for which I conduct research and interviews with a number of the organization’s 250+ expert-level participants, synthesize findings, and develop actionable recommendations to address specific food and health systems issues. I also support the organization’s internal operations.

What advice would you offer to other public health students?

Think outside of the box and find your passion. Many people tend to think that public health is just limited to healthcare, but public health touches many more aspects of our lives. You can pretty much pick out anything from seatbelts to public transportation to social media and identify public health’s proven (or potential) impact.  If you consider ways that everyone’s health is impacted by the circumstances in which they are born, grow up, live, work and age, you will more than likely find your specific passion within this incredible field.

Also, never say no to an opportunity knocking on your door. You never know what you might learn—there have been multiple instances in my (very young) career in which I have been skeptical about how my experiences at the time were really putting me on the career path I wanted to be on. I’m glad I battled through the skepticism. It may not seem like it at the time, but at the end of the day you’re always going to be building yourself into the professional you want to be.

You can connect with Allen on LinkedIn or via Twitter, @AllenRako

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