Alumni Spotlight Heather Menne MGS '01

Miami University Master of Gerontological Studies (MGS) '01

Heather Menne, Social Science Analyst at the Administration for Community Living in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, received the W. Fred Cottrell Distinguished Alumni Award in April 2017

Heather shares the story of her academic and career path and offers advice to students.

Why did you choose the MGS program?

In my junior year of college, I was exploring graduate programs in gerontology and one of my psychology professors mentioned that there was, as he said, “a little gerontology program at Miami of Ohio” where he had completed his doctorate in psychology in 1978. So, accolades to Tim Petersik, who put me on the track to at least explore the idea of Miami.

My mother and I made a trip to the campus and I had a chance to meet with the faculty and some of the current students. At that point, I just knew it was going to be the right place for me to really continue my studies and to fully immerse myself into the study of gerontology.

Where did you do your MGS practicum?

My practicum was at Northwestern University Medical Center in Chicago in their Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. I was based in the Center’s clinic, so I was able to observe the neuropsych assessments as well as the interactions that families had with the social worker, who was my direct supervisor. My main task during that summer was related to the support groups that she facilitated. Part of the summer I also did qualitative interviews with the support group attendees and these served a two-fold purpose. The main purpose was to learn what the dyad -- the person with dementia and the caregiver -- thought of the support groups they were attending. That was the information Northwestern needed. The other purpose was to gather my thesis data on the subjective experience of dementia.

How did you decide to go on for a PhD after completing the MGS?

I started to think about going on for a doctorate while I was an MGS student. During my summer research practicum, I remember having conversations with Dr. Kinney about the next steps. When I began the MGS program I thought that I wanted a career in research. This desire was reinforced through my first-year coursework, my graduate assistantship assignments with Jennifer Kinney, Jane Karnes Straker, and Shahla Mehdizadeh, and then also reinforced with my thesis and practicum work.

When I came back after my summer practicum I started applying to some doctoral programs and had the opportunity to visit Case Western Reserve University with Dr. Kinney. She was doing Grand Rounds at the VA and she took me with her. After Grand Rounds, I met with a couple of faculty members and students at Case Western and, again, it just seemed to be a good fit. So, in the fall of 2001, I started the PhD program there.

What was the topic of your dissertation?

My dissertation topic was the stress process model for individuals with cognitive impairment. I applied the constructs of Pearlin’s stress process model (which typically looks at the stress of family caregivers) to the experience for persons with dementia. I did secondary analysis of data collected from persons with dementia, which was a really wonderful experience.

How did you find your first job after completing your PhD program?

In the third year of my doctoral program, I was starting to think about finding outside employment from the University and a job posting came from The Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging for a research analyst to work on a project of direct care workers. I joined Benjamin Rose in 2004 as a Research Analyst. I defended my dissertation in 2006 and also that year was made a Research Scientist at Benjamin Rose.

For the next 10 years or so I did some investigator-initiated work at Benjamin Rose, but I also did a lot of program evaluation. Various projects would come our way and I would help apply program evaluation techniques to it. Some of those projects involved working with Scripps Gerontology Center; the one that comes to mind is the assisted living/Medicaid waiver and gathering data about the effectiveness of that program. Some others included a six-year partnership with the Ohio Department of Aging as well as the Alzheimer’s Association chapters in Ohio to evaluate the implementation of an evidence-based program. This took me to various corners of Ohio for training and evaluation purposes. That experience also piqued my interest in what happens to programs that are deemed “evidence-based.” Why do they get picked up by insurers and payers, like CMS, to be supported or not? How can more of these evidence-based programs be spread?

Tell us about your experience as a policy fellow.

In 2013-2014, I participated in the Health and Aging Policy Fellows (HAPF) program with the support of the Benjamin Rose Institute. Rather than seeking a placement within an executive branch agency like Health and Human Services, I sought a placement on Capitol Hill. So, for about eight months I worked in the personal office of a Democratic senator from Pennsylvania and worked on a range of general aging topics. I was working on elder abuse topics, financial exploitation topics, meeting with med students who wanted to see legislation on end-of-life, and more. I was able to call upon my general aging knowledge and my research skills to learn quickly and apply my learning to those topics.

During the time in the Senate, I began talks with some folks at the Administration for Community Living (ACL) to see if there may be some small project I could work on in August and September (when things are quiet on Capitol Hill). I spoke with people in the Office of Performance and Evaluation as they were redesigning some of their administrative data collection methods. As I got to know the group at ACL, it was a wonderful experience to go from a place where older adults and aging aren’t talked about much (on Capitol Hill), to where it’s all about older adults and how to make sure they get the proper services. It just felt really comfortable.

Tell us about your most recent career change.

In 2016 an opportunity arose to go back to Washington and take a position with the Administration for Community Living in the Office of Performance and Evaluation. In this position, my overarching task is to use data to help inform federal aging and disability programs. I oversee evaluations of the Older Americans Act Nutrition Services Program as well as the National Family Caregiver Support Program. It has been a really great experience to expand my knowledge and skills and to learn additional ways of approaching evaluation, including some methodologies I was introduced to at Miami in the gerontology research methods classes.

What advice do you have for current students?

I have four key pieces of advice for students as they consider their next steps.

  1. Networking and relationships are really important. You never know what they could lead to. It may seem like something simple now but it could be really amazing in the future.
  2. Service is important, though it may not happen right away. By that, I mean service in two ways. One is giving back to your community, but another way is by mentoring. Mentoring does not need to be a senior to junior type of thing -- it can also be peer-to-peer.
  3. Think outside the box. Especially in gerontology, this is completely applicable. I heard someone say that there should be health in all policies… one could argue there should be aging in all policies because we’re an aging population. That can be retirement policy, employment policy, education policy, health policy, etc.
  4. And then the last one -- be a sponge. Observe as much as you can, even if doesn’t make sense yet. Just start taking it all in and then see how it fits. And ask questions too -- it’s okay to ask the questions.

What did you appreciate most about the MGS program?

What I found most beneficial with the MGS program was it really felt to me like a place to grow in my areas of interest. I don’t remember feeling dissuaded from going down a path that not many were going down. Faculty were supportive in the area of my interest, but they also exposed me to complimentary topics, issues, and methodologies.

What experiences were especially meaningful to you as an MGS student?

I really think that working with, and also seeing the Miami faculty and the Scripps staff in action was really helpful. There are several, but one example that I have for that:

In my second semester, there was a required long-term care class taught by Dr. Applebaum. During that semester he needed to go to Columbus to give testimony, so he took our class along! Being able to see someone I actually knew talking about long-term care in a very important manner to a very important group of people made a big impression. These are real people doing this work.