Category: Academics

Investigating Food Outbreaks

Every year, Minnesota experiences more than 40 foodborne disease outbreaks. The summer months see scores of Salmonella cases or E. coli poisoning, while winter brings norovirus infections by the droves.

SPH student, and Team D member, Tess Peterson (left) with Team D director Carlota Medus (MPH '99, PhD '06).
SPH student, and Team D member, Tess Peterson (left) with Team D director Carlota Medus (MPH ’99, PhD ’06).

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) is continuously collecting information on potential foodborne illness outbreaks via routine surveillance, or when a patient, provider, or institution reports a suspected outbreak.

Investigating the source of those outbreaks takes hundreds of hours, many of which are conducted by Team D (“D” for diarrhea), a group in MDH’s Foodborne Diseases Unit made up in large part by School of Public Health students. Team D students are hired to investigate, document, and track outbreaks of foodborne diseases in the state. The program was founded by SPH professor and foodborne disease expert Craig Hedberg in 1996 and has continued to evolve under the direction of Carlota Medus MPH ’99, PhD ’05, and Kirk Smith for the past 21 years.

Identifying an Outbreak

“This is the true epidemiology experience,” says Medus, supervisor of the Foodborne Diseases Unit at MDH. “As part of Team D, you learn everything to do during an outbreak at the state level, and get a complete picture of what happens when you detect an outbreak.”

Amy Saupe (MPH '16) analyzes data from a recent outbreak.
Amy Saupe (MPH ’16) analyzes data from a recent outbreak.

Currently, all of the Foodborne Disease Unit epidemiologists, including Medus, are SPH alumni, and were part of Team D as students before getting hired by MDH. 

“Team D helps with every step of the investigation,” says Medus. Initially, a Team D worker will call a patient and take a detailed epidemiological history of their food intake and possible exposures. “They’ll ask about everything that happened in the seven days before symptoms began,” says Medus.

And, Medus says, Team D members often break open a case. “Since the students are the ones on the phone with patients, they’re often the first to notice if a certain restaurant has been mentioned more than once.”

Unique Experience

Having the chance to solve the mystery of an outbreak is what attracted Krista Bryz-Gornia to Team D. The first-year epidemiology MPH student heard about the program during a student fair before she started in SPH and knew she wanted to be a part of the team.

SPH student and Team D member Luke Magnuson conducts phone interviews.
SPH student and Team D member Luke Magnuson conducts phone interviews.

“I love that we get to see an outbreak or a case from beginning to end. It’s exciting to talk to other student workers when there’s an outbreak and say, ‘Did your patient eat at this restaurant?’ ‘Did they have this symptom?’”

As a fluent Spanish speaker, Bryz-Gornia has conducted bilingual interviews and says MDH has been flexible in letting her balance work and school. Team D staff members work about 20 hours a week from 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., often contacting patients in the evening to get information about their illness and symptoms.

“Team D has been a perfect complement to my public health education,” Bryz-Gornia says.

In addition to MDH, the program’s alumni work across the country in such institutions as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the CDC.

Andrew Beron, MPH ’14, was a Team D member and is now an epidemiologist for the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Health on the island of St. Croix, where he helps perform Zika surveillance. Beron says his time at Team D was helpful in preparing him for a career in the field.

“Team D is something students at other schools of public health don’t get,” says Beron. “It helped me build so much confidence as an investigator.”

Minnesota Leads the Way

That confidence is what sets Minnesota’s SPH apart from other institutions. “By the mid-1990s it became clear that foodborne infections weren’t going away,” says Hedberg. “What we wanted to do with foodborne disease surveillance was create a student worker team that could participate in surveillance and do routine interviews with individual cases, then the students have both practical experience and the opportunity to work with data they’ve collected.”

Hedberg says other state departments of health and even the CDC have taken note of Team D’s efficiency.

“We developed the model, and others have tried to replicate it,” says Hedberg. “The partnership between the SPH and MDH is still one of the biggest draws to our school for students who want to work in epidemiology.”

Re-imagining the MPH Core Curriculum: Phase II Complete

Phase II of Re-Imagining the MPH Core Curriculum project is done.

Building on the work of Phase I, the Phase II Committee recommends a revised configuration of core courses along with an increased emphasis on interdisciplinary, practice-based skill development.

The Phase II MPH Report describes the process that Phase II Committee members used to develop these recommendations. The Phase II report also describes next steps, and requirements for implementation of the recommendations. Informal sessions to discuss the report will be held soon.

Appendix IV: Committee Reports contains reports for each Phase II subcommittee.

Appendix V contains a timeline for the implementation of the competencies, skills, and knowledge described in the Accreditation Criteria document published by the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) in October 2016.

Look for announcements for sessions to be held at Mayo and WBOB.

Contact Betsy Wattenberg ( with questions.


Creating a healthier population means tackling hard-to-solve, complex issues. At Minnesota, students are at the center of some of the world’s most pressing problems through their involvement in case competitions.

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MHA curriculum review underway

What are the competencies University of Minnesota MHA graduates will need as the health care sector shifts from one that is volume-based to one that is value-based?  And, how should the MHA program revise its curriculum to ensure that our graduates are well-prepared to lead high performance health care organizations now and in the future? 

These questions are being examined by Program Director Jean Abraham in collaboration with MHA faculty, students, alumni, and other industry stakeholders.

Curriculum review plan

A four-phase review plan is underway.

  • Mapping courses to our existing competency model:  Faculty and students are working together to develop a data infrastructure that captures how course objectives align with specific competencies based on our declared curriculum.
  • Identifying potential curriculum gaps and opportunities: Approximately 24 alumni volunteers from diverse work settings and at different career stages will be working with faculty members to provide input around six content areas to affirm knowledge and skills that are valued in the market and to identify potential curriculum gaps that should be incorporated.    
  • Broader stakeholder engagement: All MHA alumni and other industry leaders will be surveyed online in late spring 2016 to assess the importance of specific competencies and learning outcomes that are anticipated to be highly valued in this rapidly changing market.
  • Analysis and recommendations: Results will inform recommendations relating to modifications in course content and structure; revisions to the MHA Program’s competency model; and strategic investments that will be needed to implement these changes and strengthen the program going forward.


The curriculum review process launched in early February 2016 and will continue into early summer. 

Alumni input

Alumni are a vital part of this effort.  We anticipate the online survey being distributed in late spring 2016.  If you are interested in participating, please be sure that the MHA Alumni Association has your current e-mail address on file. 

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