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Staff Profile: Deborah Murdoch, MPH, Program Manager
Throughout her studies and into her career, Deborah Murdoch has bridged two worlds, and happily so.
Her enjoyment of science and math set this Sewickley native on a pre-med track at the College of William and Mary, a cutting-edge research university chartered in 1693.
But she began to doubt whether she wanted to spend nearly another decade in study and preparation, especially given a keen interest in international development. A student advisor suggested Tulane University's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, which offered a master's degree in public health paired with two years of service in the U.S. Peace Corps.
"So I went from Colonial Williamsburg to New Orleans," Murdoch recalls. "The slower pace, climate, and cultural diversity of city and students at Tulane was a really good transition into work in the developing world. It's a region unlike anywhere else in the United States."
She sped through the first year of studies stateside, taking classes both summers before heading to Mpumalanga in eastern South Africa. "It was just a decade post-apartheid, and I lived in a semi-urban township that had been historically designated for black South Africans. There were not a lot of resources. Meanwhile, 20 kilometers away the provincial capital offered First World amenities."
Murdoch worked with a nonprofit led by registered nurses who trained community health workers to visit people at home, offering discreet counseling and testing as well as treatment support, for tuberculosis and HIV. "There was still incredible stigma related to HIV, and people weren't seeking care."
Her day-to-day job was providing organizational support to strengthen the fledging organization, planning and coordination anti-retroviral therapy trainings, and writing grant proposals and reports to funders. She also helped to organize an after-school program and to develop a small library with English and isiZulu storybooks. Through the experience, she gained new insight into race and racial dynamics both in South Africa and back home in the United States.
When her Peace Corps service was up, Murdoch found a job in with a USAID contracting agency in Washington, D.C., coordinating proposal development for grants in various parts of the world on a range of public health initiatives. "I learned a lot about health care quality improvement and project management. One of the proposals I helped to coordinate got funded, and to help with the startup I went to Uganda for a three-week trip, which ended up being six weeks. Then the project team in Kampala asked if I'd do interim support for three months…."
She ended up staying for three years, working on a $32 million program to support the Uganda Ministry of Health with the transition from emergency responses to HIV/AIDS care and treatment toward a more systematic approach at more than 18 hospitals across the country. Murdoch worked closely with a local pediatrician directing the project and the leadership team to hire core staff, coordinate capacity-building and training, renovate laboratory systems, and document program achievements and lessons learned.
"This was the project director's first time working with a D.C.-based company on implementation of such a large-scale project. My experience allowed me to liaise among the home office and USAID and the field team to ensure that all requirements were met. And I loved being closer to the actual work being done."
Still, she wanted to try working in public health domestically and started her search in Pittsburgh to be near family. "I learned about JHF – the HIV program it manages, its quality improvement work…. I realized it would make a nice transition and fit."
That was in July 2013. Since then, Murdoch has led learning sessions and grants management for theMinority AIDS Initiative, coordinated the annual Patient Safety and Jonas Salk fellowships, and worked on the foundation's community-wide initiative to increase HPV vaccination. Her role includes grants management, quality improvement coaching, facilitation of collaborative learning and peer-exchange, analysis of program data, and documentation of lessons learned. She also provides leadership for the Adolescent Behavioral Health Initiative, which partners with youth organizations to develop a youth advocacy network focused on improved teen mental health services and supports.
"I really enjoy planning for the peer-to-peer learning in our HIV program. Finding ways our grantees can encourage and can learn from one another about their efforts to re-engage HIV-positive clients in medical care has been exciting. I also love working with high school students on mental health advocacy. They offer a unique perspective, and their energy and sense of urgency will move us towards a system that better meets the mental health needs of all young people.
"The great thing about JHF is that there are opportunities for thinking at the systems level – programmatically, and strategically. But there is still engagement with frontline workers, the people actually providing the services. There is a bridge between the two that we can cross, and together both sides are really rewarding."
In her free time, Murdoch volunteers with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank's Produce to the People program on the North Side, and enjoys reading, taking in performances at the South Side's City Theatre and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, hiking in places like Riverview and North Park, and especially spending time with "three really great nephews" ages 7, 6, and 3.