By Meghan Chua
Growing up in southwestern Wisconsin, Aly Pfaff always knew she wanted to attend UW–Madison for its strong academics and research opportunities. Now nearing commencement, when Pfaff will graduate with a master’s degree in Epidemiology, she has achieved that goal and gone above and beyond.
“I really wanted research opportunities and a great academic opportunity as well,” Pfaff said, “and I’ve really enjoyed my time here.”
Pfaff first came to UW–Madison to pursue a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, thinking she would continue to medical school. After some reflection on her interests, she switched gears and took a break from studying after earning her undergraduate degree. She began working full-time for the Center for Health Disparities Research (CHDR) where she had first gained research experience as an undergraduate.
Through that experience, Pfaff realized she wanted to focus more on data analysis, programming, and other research skills. During her time with CHDR, Pfaff helped construct residential histories for participants in the center’s studies. She also contributed toward the center’s development of data collection protocols and documentation.
After deciding she wanted to go back to school, Pfaff enrolled in the epidemiology master’s program in the Department of Population Health Sciences.
“I love problem solving and I love thinking about things analytically,” Pfaff said. “It was exemplified in my master’s program. That’s epidemiology – you’re really asking questions to investigate and explain the associations that we see between certain exposures and the health of populations.”
Through her courses, Pfaff has enjoyed learning about different areas of research from faculty members. She said the highlight of her graduate school experience has been getting to know the people she has met, including the mentorship that she has received.
“The mentorship that I’ve had has been key. My advisor, Amy Cochran, has just been fantastic and I think that’s been very key in my development through graduate school and the experience that I’ve had,” Pfaff said. “And the mentorship from supervisors at CHDR as well – they’ve been very supportive of my experience and fostering any sort of development I was interested in.”
Pfaff recently defended her master’s thesis, which investigated the availability of medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD) in United States jails, including methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone. These medications have proven to be an effective treatment option for people with an opioid use disorder (OUD). Although MOUD are effective, Pfaff explained that negative attitudes toward MOUD have been documented within the criminal justice system. Her research asks whether there is an association between the attitudes of jail staff and the provision of MOUD in jails.
She found a few statistically significant associations. First, Pfaff found that positive attitudes toward all MOUD was associated with more screenings, diagnoses, and treatment referrals. Second, positive attitudes toward naltrexone, which inhibits the effects of opioids, and negative attitudes toward methadone and buprenorphine, which mimic the neurobiological response of opioids, were associated with fewer screenings, diagnoses, treatment referrals, and MOUD prescriptions for people with an OUD.
Pfaff hopes to continue working on these topics and sees herself pursuing a career in local government, leading projects that could increase access to treatment for individuals with opioid use disorders.
“I think many people know that these treatments work. It’s just a matter of being able to overcome barriers to provide them,” Pfaff said.
Pfaff is excited to celebrate at the commencement ceremony with her family and friends. She will also be the flag bearer for the Graduate School during the ceremony, which she is looking forward to.
“I’ve participated in the commencement before in undergrad, but I think the opportunity to actually walk through and see everyone – and perhaps see my family in the crowd – will be really exciting,” she said.