Champlin Park alum working on front lines during pandemic

Angie Ulrich, a 2005 graduate of Champlin Park High School, works as an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. (Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota School of Health)

A Champlin Park alumnus is making her mark on the world of public health. Dr. Angie Ulrich, a 2005 Champlin Park High School graduate, is an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, which works to prevent illness and death from infectious disease threats.

During her time as a Rebel, Ulrich remembers taking a myriad of courses that would eventually prepare her for her current job: science, math, social studies, government, and public policy. “I’m so grateful for how [my teachers] have invested in me. I feel really lucky to have had that,” she said. “What I’m doing now combines the science of public health with policy.”

She also participated in student council and was a member of the basketball and track and field teams, all things she credits for building an attitude of teamwork that she uses now daily.

When she started as an undergraduate student at St. Olaf College, Ulrich wanted to go into medicine. She did a month-long internship at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland as a part of a study abroad program and discovered she had a passion for something more specific; something that combines her love of medicine with interest in math and statistics.

“I realized public health is something I can do,” Ulrich said.

During her sophomore year, Ulrich worked for the Anoka County Health Department and saw what public health looked like on a more micro-level than the WHO. Then after graduating college, she moved to Seattle and volunteered with the Red Cross and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, which presented the non-profit side of public health. “That is where I saw a career path in academic public health,” she said.

Ulrich eventually fell in love with the Seattle area and decided to apply for the Master’s program at the University of Washington, where she got her Master’s degree and PhD in epidemiology. After receiving her degrees, her career path took her back to Minnesota, where she began working for the division of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota, specifically tasked with studying vaccines to prevent meningitis.

PUTTING WORK ON HOLD

In December 2019, while still working on meningitis vaccines, Ulrich and her colleagues began hearing word about a mysterious virus in China. “I remember thinking, ‘this could be interesting. We’ll keep an eye on it and see what happens,’” Ulrich said.

For an epidemiologist like Ulrich, she expected it to be like the SARS or MERS viruses. A big deal yes, but then eventually fizzling out. “I think a lot of people were expecting that to happen,” she said.

But after the holiday break at the end of the year, case counts started to go up, and up, and up. “It became clear to epidemiologists that COVID-19 would be a big deal,” Ulrich said. “I remember thinking, ‘once it starts spreading, it is just a matter of time before it will spread around the globe.’”

So in February 2020, her work on the meningitis vaccine was paused and Ulrich began working for the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, and their pandemic response. For the last year and a half, Ulrich has worked on developing documents to help inform public policy responses in areas such as COVID-19 testing, the role of masks, and other topics.

She also has worked with Dr. Michael Osterholm on a podcast called The Osterholm Update, a weekly report on the pandemic. All the while working from the comforts of her home, which she said presents some difficulties. “It’s been challenging for sure,” Ulrich said. “The benefits of science are brainstorming with people and you miss those organic convos and brainstorms when you are at home.”

‘DOING IT FOR THE GOOD OF THE PUBLIC’

“Twenty months ago, it seemed like no one knew what an epidemiologist was.” That is what Ulrich says about how her line of work has transformed in the last year and a half.

Ulrich is specifically tasked with translating work done in studies and labs to what it means for the public and policies. “We don’t want all the work we are doing to be lost,” Ulrich said. “Like something that is published but never used.”

Another big challenge Ulrich has seen in the past 20 months has been what she calls the “politicization of science.” Even though she acknowledged politicization has happened for previous pandemics in history, being on the front lines for this one, at times, wears her down. “

The politicization of science has been hard to see,” Ulrich said. “People in public health have worked so so hard to do the right thing and keep people healthy.”

But when she feels weighed down, Ulrich reminds herself of why she got into the public health field in the first place: to make a difference in people’s lives.

“I try to remind myself that I’m doing it for the good of the public,” she said. “For me, it is good to check back in and know that I’m doing these things because they matter and they save lives.”

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