When Sarah Tuneberg BSW ’02 arrived at the University of Georgia from Boulder, Colorado, all she knew is that she felt a calling to help people. She is certainly doing that now. Equipped with degrees in social work and public health as well as a healthy appetite for entrepreneurial adventure, she is now the senior policy advisor for COVID-19 Testing and Containment in Colorado.
Tuneberg is leading a team to organize testing, contact tracing, technology development, and support services for citizens in isolation and quarantine.
Her training in emergency management began in the UGA School of Social Work. She originally explored pre-med, but one semester of organic chemistry convinced her to look for a new direction.
“I met with Miriam Sabin PhD ’02, a professor of social work, and talked about my hope of working in international relief,” she remembers. “Miriam encouraged me to not only do social work, but to go on to an MPH.”
UGA’s social work program helped her learn key insights that continue to inform her work. For her hands-on experience, Tuneberg worked at a shelter for homeless teens.
“That experience helped me deepen my power of empathy,” she says, noting that a coronavirus harm reduction strategy also requires great empathy. “Not everybody has the same experiences, and in times of crisis, you need to meet people where they are.”
After earning her Master of Public Heath degree at Tulane University, Tuneberg began a career as an entrepreneur and public health analyst. In 2011, she started Rock Park, a firm that provided analytical services for emergency management. Six years later, she co-founded Geospiza, a climate risk assessment software platform that enables global organizations to quantify and take action to reduce climate and natural hazard risks. The company assists clients in visualizing asset risk and evaluates the costs and benefits of potential actions.
Visualizing risk and charting a course of action are skills in urgent demand, as the world attempts to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. Tuneberg, who contracted COVID-19 in April during the course of her work and has recovered, is drawing heavily from her start-up experience in her current role. “We need to use entrepreneurial thinking and the power and speed of the private sector in the time of coronavirus,” she says.
Tuneberg, who is responsible for Colorado’s testing and containment strategy, is pushing her team to automate contract tracing, perhaps via apps, and to develop data dashboards so that local leaders and community members can understand and act on complex data.
“We really need to have up-to-date and accurate data to determine the efficacy of our efforts so that we can pivot our resources to where they are most needed,” she explains.
She’s also using her start-up scaling skills to broaden Colorado’s supply chain for essential equipment such as personal protective equipment, while also coaching local manufacturers on retooling their operations to meet these demands. Finally, she’s using her social work training to manage a team working to make sure that when people need to isolate, they have access to essential services such as food, housing assistance, and internet.
All of these critical tasks require her to draw on the foundation she built at UGA.
“The University of Georgia was a community that fostered me and allowed me to take risks,” says Tuneberg, “I learned about innovation, technology, public health, emergency management, and interpersonal skills. I feel uniquely equipped to help in this moment.”