Alum Spotlight: Kristen Oehlke

Posted on September 20th, 2011 by

In 2010, the Minnesota legislature passed a bill authorizing a statewide expansion of the Birth Defects Monitoring program through the Minnesota Department of Health. Kristin Oehlke, (Chemistry class of 1991), was named the director of the program, and focuses on reducing the number of children born with birth defects in Minnesota.

As the name suggests, the Birth Defects Monitoring Program monitors babies born with birth defects around the state, and makes sure that the parents of the child are aware of the services available to them. The program also strives to reduce the number of children born with defects by encouraging young women to stay healthy and informed. This includes screening for diabetes and birth defects in the family, managing a healthy weight, and ingesting the proper amounts of nutrients. If Oehlke and her colleagues notice a cluster of birth defects, they investigate whether it is something they could expect statistically, or if there may be an environmental influence. Ohelke’s department noticed that the number of children born with Spina Bifida, a condition in which the backbone and spinal canal do not close completely before birth, was higher than expected in Latina mothers. The department was able to link the defects to a diet low in folic acid, and took measures to increase the awareness about the importance folic acid.

Cases in which Oehlke and her colleagues are able to pinpoint the problem and take measures to fix it are rewarding, however, Oehlke admits that her job can be very difficult. “There is so much work to do with the expansion, and it’s a big job making sure you do the best thing possible in each situation.” According to Ohelke, there is a growing trend of mistrust of the government, making it harder to collect information about people and provide them with the services they need.

Despite the challenges, Oehlke stays positive and forward thinking about her role and the impact she can have on Minnesota’s health. “Our ultimate goal,” said Ohelke, “is to see a Minnesota with out birth defects. It may be idealistic, but that is what we work towards everyday.”

 


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