Capella University student Matthew Weinburke is in the final, critical stage of his Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) program: the dissertation. Like many doctoral students, he’s had to balance the demands of a rigorous program with family and a full-time job. In his case, however, the job has made some unusual demands that have slowed him down a bit—but not stopped him.


Q. Tell us about your job.

A. I’m a U.S. Public Health Service Officer, directly assigned to Yosemite National Park. Being a Public Health Officer means I’m part of the seven uniformed services in the U.S. Most people know five of them: Coast Guard, Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines. But there are two others: the Public Health Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


Q. What does your job involve?

A. I wear several hats. There’s an environmental health officer hat, where I study and identify vector-borne disease issues. I also handle food inspections, illness investigations, and the safety of recreational water areas and drinking water. I’m also involved in industrial hygiene health, which looks at occupational health issues related to things like hearing loss due to noise, mold complaints, and indoor air quality problems. Pretty much anything related to disease and illness.


Q. Your work at Yosemite took an unexpected turn this summer.

A. It did. I was part of a team that investigated and identified two cases of the plague that had (by all accounts) been acquired at Yosemite National Park. Each case involved complex investigations, one which started with the Los Angeles Public Health Department, which notified the California Public Health Department, and then the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The other started with the Georgia State Public Health Department. The plague is a “reportable illness”—it has to be reported nationally. The two cases involved people who had both been to Yosemite, so I was brought in. I was involved with the environmental and epidemiological aspects of both cases. The environmental investigation included conducting rodent trapping and flea sampling at several of the sites that the individuals had visited.

I was also involved in notifying the public. I did a TV interview and worked on internal and external messaging and communications, updated the park’s public and internal websites, and made sure all staff, concessionaires, private partners, and surrounding communities were properly informed. There were also external communication, FAQs, and web inquiries to answer.


Q. What caused the plague?

A. In most cases in the United States it is typically transmitted by infected fleas and usually involves rodents, specifically squirrels and chipmunks. So a big part of our investigation had to be out in the field—first finding the source, and then dealing with it. We had to close down three campgrounds for flea treatment and prevention. Then we had to coordinate with the wildlife folks in efforts to trap rodents, catch the fleas (for testing purposes), and safely pick up any dead rodents. It required special training and had to be coordinated with the park’s law enforcement.


Q. Public health can be a demanding career! Why did you decide to add a doctoral program?

A. I have a master’s of public health with a focus in epidemiology, and I decided that a doctorate with a focus in advocacy and leadership would be a nice fit. I want to make a difference, and the DrPH will give me more career opportunities. It would help me move to other public health agencies or into consulting or advocacy. A lot of my colleagues have doctorates, and I can see how it’s helped them. The master’s is great, but the DrPH will expand my knowledge, skills, and role as a public health professional.


Q. Why Capella?

A. Working in Yosemite, there was no way for me to attend a brick-and-mortar university. I researched online options and talked to several friends who had gone to Capella, and some public health officers who had doctorates from Capella, and they recommended it.


Q. You’ve completed everything but the dissertation. How is that going?

A. The dissertation research and writing really propels you to a new level. It’s very challenging. I started working on it in the last quarter of 2014, but then had to take quarters off because I was sent to Liberia to treat Liberian health care workers who had been infected with Ebola. I returned to the U.S. in May and started again, but the plague slowed things down. But I will finish it. I’m highly motivated.


Learn more about Capella’s online public health programs.