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Researching the real-world impact of COVID-19, its effects on health policy


Melissa Smallwood

Melissa Smallwood

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November 22, 2021

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2021 graduates.

It's been nearly two years since the first confirmed case of COVID-19, but there is still much more to learn about its impact.

What are the long-term health issues people may experience? What policies could we see in the future as a result of COVID-19?

Melissa Smallwood is working to answer those questions. Earning her Master of Science and Technology Policy degree at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society in the College of Global Futures, she is researching long-haul COVID and its effects on health policy.

"I was interested in this research because my background has focused on disability and medicine and the ways they fit into the bigger picture," Smallwood said. "It's something people don't always think about, particularly in regard to disability, because it tends to be so siloed in our society. We don't really think about it outside of an individualized medical context. But now, with COVID, the volume of people being infected and developing complications is so large that I don't think that we can afford to do that anymore, at least not without some serious negative consequences."

Working with Brian David Johnson and the Threatcasting Lab, Smallwood is researching long-haul COVID through the lens of Threatcasting, a methodology designed to model scenarios 10 years in the future to try and determine potential threats and find ways to overcome them. 

"Bringing in the Threatcasting methodology was new for me. I was introduced to it while working with a lab that was putting together a pandemic preparedness game plan for Sandia National Laboratories since they were basically sidelined during the early parts of the pandemic. They had resources and knowledge that could have been applied to the response, but it just wasn't utilized well. They hired the team that I was a part of to find ways they can better respond and help in the early parts of a pandemic."

After graduation, Smallwood wants to continue her research and anticipatory work. As part of the Arizona Science Policy Network, she is looking to present her long-haul COVID and policy research at the network's Science Day at the Capitol in the spring. The Master of Science and Technology Policy (MSTP) program has helped her develop her research and find ways it can be applied effectively to make change.

"Many issues aren't confined to a single discipline anymore. Everything sort of bleeds into everything. The MSTP program interested me because it's interdisciplinary and focuses on systemic thinking. We need a lot more of that moving forward to really address complex issues."

Question: Why did you choose ASU?

Answer: I chose ASU because of the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the Master of Science and Technology Policy program. I was on the mailing list for the school and saw a notice for the annual conference. I thought the agenda looked interesting, so I attended as a community member and met people in the school. Everyone was very friendly and engaged in interesting work. Throughout my entire prior academic career, I had always been interested in the intersection between science and society, particularly in health and biology. The schools I had previously attended didn't have a science policy program, so I didn't know that existed as a field. Once I found out about the MSTP program, it clicked. This is what I had been looking for my entire academic career.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: One thing that I found valuable that I didn't know before was the different ways that policy gets made beyond just legislation. In a couple of my classes, there was a lot of focus on soft law and consensus-building, which is different from legislation and has different advantages and disadvantages. It was good to learn about the various definitions of policy.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Clinical Associate Professor Heather Ross has been my main professor at ASU and is the head of my applied project. One of the courses I had with her was on uncertainty and decision-making. That was the class where I learned the most and read a lot of where we don't necessarily have answers, and that's kind of the problem but also the point. But yeah, that was also one of my more rigorous classes.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Stay in school, wear a mask and get vaccinated.

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