Brendan Mathews at the University of Cincinnati College of Law

Bridging the Gap

Brendan Mathews' Search for Equitable Outcomes

For the first two weeks of law school, Brendan Mathews (JD ‘23, PhD ‘25), divided his time between attending virtual classes at The University of Cincinnati College of Law and consulting with the Governor of Rhode Island to help overhaul the state's contact tracing efforts. From his makeshift office within the Rhode Island Health Department, Brendan adjusted to life as a law student during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I had my little office in the health department where I would hop onto virtual class and then as soon as it was over, I would run around the health department having meetings with people, doing what I needed to do as an epidemiologist,” he recalled. “In the evenings I’d go to the gym, eat dinner, and read for classes the next day. Then get up early and do it all over again.”

Brought up in the rural town of Bardstown, Kentucky, Brendan said he always dreamed bigger than the life expected of him and his peers. His mom, who raised him solo, never let those big dreams seem too far out of reach. 

“I always wanted to go on to do bigger, better things than the prescribed life,” he said. “Today, I do it all for my mom. She has been my support system and my reminder that I have the ability and the skillset to do this. So I'm gonna do it.”

Brendan’s extraordinary journey from a Masters student in Public Health at the University of Kentucky, to running the State of Kentucky’s contact tracing efforts, to consulting with states like Rhode Island unfolded swiftly and fortuitously. Unknown to him, it all started when his professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology offered the class the opportunity to volunteer at the Lexington Fayette County Health Department in March 2020. Motivated by his passion for public health, Brendan was the sole volunteer. 

Immediately, he was tasked with the responsibility of contacting Covid-19 patients and tracking their symptoms, along with anyone who may have been exposed. Within the first week of volunteering, he witnessed the number of cases in the state skyrocket from eight to 500 in a matter of days.

Brandan Mathews

That May, he graduated from his Master's program and transitioned to a job with the State of Kentucky’s Department for Public Health. Expecting to continue similar work he’d been doing as a county volunteer, he was soon told otherwise.

“I showed up on my first day thinking I was just going to do more contact tracing,” he said. “But then the person who interviewed me meets me in the lobby and says, ‘You're in charge of building the contact tracing program for the State. You’re all we’ve got…’ It was an immediate out-of-body experience.” 

At just 23-years-old, and only two days after graduating, Brendan found himself shouldering the responsibility of spearheading Kentucky’s contact tracing program with his team of three. During that first year, he led the development of a statewide database for case management and helped standardize practices across various health departments.

“If we weren't working, people could die. So, we felt that pressure,” he said. “I would start work at 6:00 AM and work until 6 or 7 at night and then go home and eat dinner and frustratedly scream at the world for 25 minutes, and then work from home until I went to bed.”  

The work he did while in this role became nationally recognized, and eventually, people like the Governor of Rhode Island were reaching out to ask for his expertise. It was through this experience, being immersed in the intricacies of contact tracing and case investigations, that Brendan’s interest in the interaction of public health and the law solidified. 

“Working in COVID led me to where I am today,” he said. “We had a lot of time talking to legal regarding case investigations and contact tracing. I saw that when you're in a big public health crisis or a pandemic, you need people who understand the law and what the law requires, but also what's in the best interest of public health.” 

“I want to be able to go into my career as informed as I possibly can with how these laws and systems operate, to be able to effectively reform them."

Brendan Mathews

Bridging his passion for public health and the law, the path toward a career in legal epidemiology became clear. Even before the pandemic, Brendan had long recognized the health disparities among certain groups due to unjust systems, particularly for people of color, people who identify as LGBTQ+, and women like his own mother.

“Coming from a small rural town, I've seen the struggles that my mom has faced as a single mother who has struggled to get jobs. She's had her share of health issues and I've seen how systems in most cases failed to provide the support that she deserves and needs,” he said. “I want to be able to go into my career as informed as I possibly can with how these laws and systems operate, to be able to effectively reform them.” 

"In this country we have the ability to remedy and mitigate systems from hurting people. If not me with my skill set to do that work, then who?”

- Brendan Mathews ‘23 -

Brendan Mathews

While still in his role at the Health Department, Brendan enrolled at Cincinnati Law. Shortly thereafter, he enrolled in a PhD program in epidemiology as a dual degree student at UC. 

“I don't know of any other college that would have let me design my own dual degree program in the way that UC did,” Brendan remarked. “Cincinnati Law has been completely instrumental and amazing at getting me connected to the right people and the right opportunities to achieve my goals.”

During his time as a law student, Brendan engaged in various practical experiences including working with CareSource, the largest Medicaid provider in Ohio, the Ohio Innocence Project, the Immigrant and Refugee Law Center, and the Patent and Trademark Clinic. Most recently, Brendan completed an internship at the National Women’s Law Center focusing on abortion issues. Within a month of starting his role, he found himself facing another health crisis as the Dobbs decision came into effect. 

“We had providers performing services up until the minute before the law was supposed to take place. Immediately after, you had patients knocking on their door begging for care,” Brendan recounted. “It's heart-wrenching because none of the people who made the Dobbs decision are living it. But the clients that we serve are. 

"Cincinnati Law has been completely instrumental and amazing at getting me connected to the right people and the right opportunities to achieve my goals.”

Brendan Mathews

Brendan Mathews

While these diverse experiences gained during his time at UC Law equipped him with a skill set he will take into his career, it was two pivotal courses he took in tax law, both taught by Professor Stephanie McMahon, that opened his eyes to how the tax system might be used as a vehicle to reshape systems. Because of these courses, he was given a more exact vision for what his career will look like. 

“I will forever owe Professor McMahon my career in tax law,” he said. “There are so many novel things that you can do with tax that I had never even thought possible before. The opportunities that exist there are limitless.”

At a time when the country is grappling with multiple crises and inequalities, Brendan’s understanding of the interplay between tax law and public health makes certain he will be, and is, an uncommon catalyst for change. And he said he wouldn't have it any other way.

“In this country we have the ability to remedy and mitigate systems from hurting people,” Brendan emphasized. “If not me with my skill set to do that work, then who?” 

Want to learn more about our students and their journey to (and through) law school? Read more stories on the "Meet Our Students" page. See yourself at Cincinnati Law!   

Author: Katie Bachmeyer

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