At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, they often say that the first tool in improving public health is studying patterns and the second tool is the law.
Maggie Power, a WVU Law 3L, follows that maxim every day in her externship as a research attorney for the CDC’s Public Health Law Program.
Power is combining her background in public health with her legal education. Her job is studying how law acts as a factor in the cause, distribution and prevention of health-related issues. She also provides technical assistance to local, state, tribal and territorial governments looking to improve their public health laws.
Instead of taking the usual courses in her final semester of law school, Power opted for WVU Law’s Federal Agency and Judicial Externship course. The course allows students to work full-time in a federal or judicial agency to apply their legal training in a professional setting. They meet remotely with their professor and complete a research paper and reflective writing assignments for course credit.
“Maggie is making a contribution to the CDC through her externship, and she is learning skills and acquiring a perspective that she would never get in a traditional classroom setting,” said Joshua Weishart, associate professor of law and policy. “I highly recommend externships for that very reason — in many cases, there is no substitute for practical experience.”
A native of Martinsburg, West Virginia, Power is honored to represent her home state at a large and influential institution like the CDC, she said.
“It’s nice to come to Atlanta and say ‘I’m interested in rural health and I want to do something about the problems in West Virginia and communities like it’,” she said. “I’m proud to be from West Virginia because we have enacted some progressive laws to combat the opioid epidemic.”
Recently, lawmakers in West Virginia adopted legislation allowing pharmacies to give out Naloxone, a drug that reverses an opioid overdose, without a prescription. Another law, enacted in 2015, allows emergency workers to administer the drug to patients experiencing an overdose.
“It’s great to see that our state is legally trying to do something about its public health issues,” said Power.
Like Naloxone laws that help prevent overdose deaths, there is a legal component to achieving most public health goals, from vaccines to sanitation to motor vehicle safety, she said.
“Creating behavior change is very difficult just through a public health intervention alone,” Power explained. “A legal component to the intervention can help make that change happen.”
Much of Power’s legal writing at the CDC relates to the intersectionality of the public health and health law communities.
“Medical peer review statutes, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and data sharing between hospitals, are all examples of how the health and law fields intersect,” she said.
This connection is what ultimately led Power to WVU Law after she earned her Master’s degree in Public Health, with a focus in social and behavioral sciences, from WVU in 2014.
“While pursuing my Master’s degree, I ended up working on some projects that had legal aspects to them, and I decided to go to law school,” said Power. “From that point, I always knew that I wanted to do health law or public health law.”
Power went to law school knowing about the CDC’s externship opportunities, and she was able to get her resume in the hands of the Public Health Law Program’s work force development leader at a conference last year.
When her externship ends, Power will return to WVU Law in time for graduation in May. After that, she will begin her career practicing health law at Dinsmore & Shohl in Morgantown.
Power wants future students to know that paths to law school can vary. Her own law career goals are rooted in her background in biology and public health.
“I hope students are able to see that there are ways to get into the law other than just having a political science or English background,” she said. “I never thought I would be in law school, yet here I am. People with science backgrounds or social science backgrounds like public health can definitely consider law school as an option, and they have a lot of career possibilities.”