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Working at the Intersection of Public Health & Safety

Constance Kostelac, PhDWhen presented with the opportunity to join the faculty of the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) Institute for Health and Equity, Constance Kostelac, PhD, wasn’t quite sure about the fit.

After all, Dr. Kostelac (who goes by Connie) had extensive expertise and experience to apply to the assistant professor position – but her work had been in criminology, not epidemiology…in the justice system, not the healthcare system.

While earning an undergraduate degree in psychology and criminology and law studies at Marquette University, she developed a passion for research related to sociological and psychological approaches to crime. Then, in graduate school, her interests turned to understanding the functioning of the criminal justice system, and she earned a master of science in criminology from Florida State University, and an interdisciplinary PhD in justice studies from Arizona State University, which she completed while working as a research supervisor within a law enforcement agency.

“From the beginning of my academic and professional training, I was drawn to research that seeks to understand criminal behavior,” Connie recalls. “And as I continued, it was important to me to understand directly how the system works – how the research I was doing would apply and function ‘on the ground.’ In addition, I was always interested in an interdisciplinary approach – multiple perspectives on the broader social issues surrounding crime.”

Fundamental alignment

Over the years, Connie has led research and analysis efforts within the criminal justice system, consulted on projects from Washington, DC to California, and worked in both academic and agency-based research roles. Most recently, she served for five years as the director of the Bureau of Justice Information and Analysis, the research arm of the Wisconsin Department of Justice, prior to joining MCW.

There, she specialized in data-driven approaches to such issues as measuring, preventing or controlling crime, measuring specific program outcomes and impact, and evidence-based decision making across the justice system, including a focus on legal and evidence-based pretrial practices.

Here the symmetry between Connie’s previous work and current position becomes clear. Just as epidemiology analyzes patterns and factors in health-related events in specified populations to support the control of health problems, so too her work in the justice system has systematically examined circumstances that affect the safety and well-being of a population.

“I feel my work to date is fundamentally aligned with the mission and goals of the Institute for Health and Equity and MCW as a whole in that we are looking at ways to expand research and analysis and to utilize data and information through a lens focused on supporting and working with the community,” she explains, noting that her focus has inherently always been on a blend of public health and public safety.

For example, she’s looked at violence and drug use as part of public health issues being faced across the state. “I was working on understanding patterns and trends with the goal of system-level change,” she says. “And that’s what I’m doing here as well – using data to inform policy at the local, state and even federal level to promote healthier and safer communities.”

Connie also had a working familiarity with MCW before she came to campus, as her role with Wisconsin’s Department of Justice offered opportunities to collaborate with MCW colleagues on projects integrating multidisciplinary data on issues such as gun violence, sexual violence, and opioid overdose.

She is continuing much of that work today. “My position is an opportunity to use data to help provide insight into areas inside and outside the justice system, but to broaden that view from an epidemiological perspective,” she says. Some current interests range from violence and overdose prevention and intervention activities, to criminal justice program performance and outcome measures, to the value of data sharing within and beyond the criminal justice system.

Direct connections

Today, Connie recognizes the move to MCW was ideal. She explains, “I believe it will give me the opportunity to help provide data and research at a new level at the intersection of public health and safety. I feel privileged to be able to assist in addressing questions that haven’t been addressed before – and to have an impact on communities going forward.”

“It’s important for me to work on projects that are informed by what’s happening in people’s lives – and which in turn inform and guide relevant policy,” she adds. “What I find most satisfying is when there is a direct connection between research and impact. When I learned more about what MCW and its Epidemiology Division in the Institute for Health and Equity do, the more I realized what a good match it is for me. Now that I’m here, I see it as the ideal way for me to contribute going forward.”