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Alumni Profile: Bhakthi Sahgal, MPH '15
Please list your job title, employer name and employer location.
Previous: 2016 Women’s Congressional Policy Institute Fellow: Health Policy, Office of Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA)
Current: Program Associate, Office of the Chief Science Officer at the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI).
What degree did you receive from GW? What was your concentration?
I graduated from the Milken Institute School of Public Health with an MPH in Health Policy (2015).
Please tell us about your former position. Can you describe a typical day?
I joined the Office of Congresswoman Lois Capps in 2016 as their health fellow, and therefore the majority of my work centered around the member’s position on the Energy and Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Health as well as advancing her own legislative priorities. In 2016 we saw a whole host of health care issues: Zika virus, Flint water crisis, MACRA, etc. A typical day would involve researching and analyzing policy proposals, composing legislative materials including statements for hearings and markups in Committee, floor statements, memos for the Congresswoman, and meeting with representatives from federal agencies, delivery systems, advocates, and constituents. Part way through the fellowship, additional policy areas were added to my portfolio, including: Immigration, LGBT Issues, Firearms, and Civil Rights.
Please tell us about your path from the Milken Institute School of Public Health to where you are today. How did you get your first job in the field?
In addition to the highly applicable and engaging courses I took while pursuing my degree, I had a chance to explore multiple enriching policy environments. In my first semester of the program, I began working for Dr. Susan Wood as Research Assistant at the Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health on a nationwide research project exploring patient experiences with family planning in community health centers. I also worked with Liz Borkowski as an editorial assistant for Women’s Health Issues. These two experiences helped me understand more about the research process from inception to publication, and how to ask the right questions and collect meaningful data. In tandem with my work at the Institute until graduation, I had a chance to work for the D.C. Committee on Health on teen pregnancy legislation. Working at the D.C. Committee was my first foray into utilizing what I was learning in class – understanding a problem from a policymaking perspective, conducting policy research, collaborating with stakeholders, and coming up with a list of legislative recommendations.
As I proceeded through the program, I also had the opportunity to work at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under the Obama Administration on the opioid epidemic, hepatitis C, and policy issues emerging from the legalization of cannabis in various states. This experience allowed me the opportunity to jump into a topic that I had limited prior knowledge of, and get up to speed quickly – a skill that has served me well in my time since. Fast forward to graduation in 2015, and I began to think about other environments in the policy ecosystem that interested me. Upon encouragement from my advisor, Dr. Wood, I applied for the Women’s Congressional Policy Institute (WCPI) Fellowship -- a program intended for current graduate students/recent graduates interested in learning about legislative work on the Hill. I was so excited about the opportunity to get into the details of federal policymaking!
My time on the Hill was busy, to say the least. Through the course of the fellowship I was able to work with the congresswoman’s fantastic and supportive legislative team to introduce two pieces of bipartisan, bicameral legislation on opioids. I coordinated with committee staff, stakeholders, and member offices to include them in a comprehensive package (Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act) signed into law at the end of 2016. A real joy of this process was being able to work with former classmates along the way. I also had a chance to work on projects relating to Medicare/Medicaid implementation (including MACRA and Part B), cancer care, and access to care for the underserved.
In March 2017 I started a position at the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI), here in D.C. I work on the Research Synthesis team in the Office of the Chief Science Officer, and my job is to support the organization’s initiatives around Precision Medicine and Predictive Analytics projects, in addition to supporting collaborative efforts with other organizations and agencies. In this new position, which is partly research focused and part policy focused, I find myself utilizing many learnings from all my past experiences to contribute the most to my team.
What is the best career advice you have ever received?
I’ve consciously tried to be open to advice and the lessons of others in my journey thus far in public health. There are so many accomplished individuals who have carved their own paths. I believe in listening to your instincts and pausing periodically to examine how current projects fit into a larger narrative or mission of what you want to accomplish.
That being said, here are some of my favorite pieces of advice from various professors and mentors that I return to frequently:
- Understand each key stakeholder—and try to be each one at some point. To me, this means working on policy from a variety of different vantage points (academic setting, local government, federal government, etc). Being able to place yourself at any point in the circumference surrounding an issue will help you become a stronger contributor in the long run.
- Develop horizontal skills (i.e., skills you can take with you from position to position and build upon).
- Connect with others genuinely. The word “networking” often yields either an eye-roll or stress for many young professionals. I believe the way we envision networking, with formal suits and business card distribution, is inherently flawed. Though I have attended a fair number of those events, my goal has never been to count the number of cards distributed at the end of a session, but rather to focus on the quality and meaningfulness of conversations with people I encounter. Some of the best “networking” I have experienced has actually been “connecting”, and honest encounters are often the highest yield anyway.
- Don’t be afraid of teamwork! Group projects can be daunting but realize that much of your work ahead is being able to effectively work with others towards a common goal. Take time to think about what your strengths and weaknesses are, and try to be perceptive about the different personalities on your team.
Who inspires you and why?
There are so many incredible individuals who I have had a chance to interact with as a result of the MPH program that it is hard to choose. I am inspired by many of my professors – Dr. Susan Wood, Dr. Pierre Vigilance, and many others—who take the time to give back and invest in their students. They inspire me to pay it forward in whatever capacity I can.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to work in your field?
Don’t feel confused by your curiosity, embrace it! There are so many interesting facets of the public health field and it can be overwhelming to have to “choose your area”. Do what interests you and focus on gaining new experiences—it will ultimately help you understand what you want moving forward and help you make the right moves to get there.
What was the impetus for getting your degree at the Milken Institute SPH?
I worked in a variety of community health settings prior to beginning the program, and when reflecting on those experiences, I realized I wanted to better understand the context of our health care system and the factors that influence it. Whether it was leading operations for a mobile health clinic out in Oregon wine country, or working with the immigrant community in South Philadelphia – I wanted to understand how federal, state, and local policies trickle down to affect all of our lives, as well as how to influence and innovate within our system.
The Women’s Congressional Policy Institute accepts fellowship applications every year in June. To learn more, click here.