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Winning MPA Capstone Poster Highlights Racial Disparities in Maternal Health

Nancy Erickson, Isabel Taylor, and Matthew Hufford

SPA students Nancy Erickson, Matthew Hufford, and Isabel Taylor have won this year’s Best MPA Capstone Poster Award with a research project entitled "Maternal Health Outcomes in D.C."

According to the award selection committee, made up of Professors Khaldoun AbouAssi, Nathan Favero, and Carla Flink in the Department of Public Administration and Policy, the 30-page paper and poster stood out for its thorough analysis of a timely and urgent public policy problem.

“The students interviewed a diversely-credentialed set of topical experts and assembled actional recommendations grounded in an understanding of both national trends and local developments affecting maternal mortality among black women,” reads the committee evaluation.
Erickson, Hufford, and Taylor worked together to choose a topic, conduct extensive research, develop recommendations, and design the poster. “You simply cannot have an honest conversation about the state of maternal health in this country without tackling racial disparities head on,” said Erickson. “Since American University is based in D.C., I proposed that we focus our analysis to the hyperlocal level: Wards 7 and 8.”

The COVID-19 disruption complicated the project. Many medical professionals tapped for interviews were too busy with patients to help, and the logistics of pulling together the drafts and models remotely required multiple group calls stretching across countless hours. Even so, the team interviewed eight stakeholders, including experts and advocates.

“The fact that the United States ranks 60th in maternal mortality rate worldwide and D.C. maternal mortality rate is almost two times the national rate is alarming; add to that the huge racial disparity in the district,” added AbouAssi. “Erickson, Hufford, and Taylor went deep into the causes and current efforts and came up with a set of solid and well-thought recommendations that are both promising and actionable.”

The contest, established in 2018, promotes teamwork and communication skills and showcases student research, informing the learned experiences of practitioners with data-driven solutions. It represents the culmination of the MPA capstone class, which gives students a chance to do multi-method, original research, make career contacts, and apply what they’ve learned in the classroom.

“Students submit deliverables all semester — outlines, research plans, and bibliographies,” said MPA Program Director Dr. Jocelyn Johnston. “The poster at the end of the semester gets them to crystallize their project into a small document and helps them focus on what’s most important.”

Two additional posters earned honorable mentions from the committee, "10 Years Later" (by Kevin Alkinburg, Max Joyner, Josiah Adams, Tong Qiao, Yiwen Song), on regulatory reforms implemented following the Deepwater Horizon Disaster, and "Working Collaboratively to Solve the Climate Crisis" (by Katie Maxted, Chi Chen Chou, Sarah Barnes, and Ran Zhang), on the major systemic barriers to confronting climate change.

“The capstone posters are a great way for our students to apply many of the tools they’ve learned about throughout their time at AU, and to practice communicating their findings concisely and professionally,” said Favero.

The student winners appreciated this chance to incorporate lessons from MPA coursework into real-world professional efforts. Hufford, who works for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), made several important connections.

“I found two courses particularly valuable, with skills that translate directly to the workplace: Dr. Neil Kerwin’s Regulatory Policy and Management class and Professor Mark Maxin’s Administrative Law class. I learned how to interpret, analyze, and apply legislation, case law, and rulemaking, which proved to be beneficial to me in the capstone project and as a civil servant in the federal government,” he shared.

Erickson agreed. “This project was an invigorating reminder about how much I care about promoting and protecting sexual and reproductive rights and health. Hopefully I can find a way to use my new master's degree to pursue my passion through my career and help make a difference as a public administrator.”