SF State MPA student tackles simulated pandemic

Brian Cauley and his team stayed calm in the face of a simulated global pandemic.

Team comes in first in international competition

What would you do if faced with the threat of a global pandemic — and you were responsible for containing it? Brian Cauley, who just received his master’s degree in public administration from San Francisco State University, found himself in just such a virtual situation last month.

Cauley and a team of four other students from four different universities took part in a fast-paced, computer-based competitive game at San Jose State University to see which team could best halt the spread of a global pandemic. Cauley’s team came in first place, outcompeting 130 other teams.

“It was pretty stressful. My heart was pounding. I was sweating and on the edge of my seat the whole time,” said Cauley. “When the test starts, everyone is looking at the same screen and nothing is happening. But suddenly the screen refreshes and you see two people infected, then 100. Then it refreshes again, and you have 1,000 people infected, then 10,000, with 600 people dead.”

Five hundred students from 159 universities and 27 countries participated at 15 different host sites around the world. The students spent a day addressing a simulated public health crisis in four different hour-long test scenarios, representing a different fictional country each time. Students on each team took on different roles — prime minister or minister of health, communications or economy, etc. — during the four tests throughout the day.

Cauley’s team members, none of whom had met each other prior to the competition, had to figure out what to do, taking into consideration each country’s limitations and economy. “We had to figure out — do you close the borders, shut down railroads, airlines, roads? Close schools, distribute medicine? If the economy was going down, the minister of economy would say you need to start focusing on opening up the borders again. You had to take neighboring countries into consideration.” Cauley’s team wrote two policy memos as part of the competition: Teams were scored on their memos, presentations and performance during the test.

On top of trying to stop a global pandemic, technical difficulties with the servers meant that sometimes the tests had to be restarted. But his team remained level-headed, which Cauley says helped them win. “We could hear the other groups arguing and yelling, but we had no time for that ― you just have to get along. It’s really about working within a group effectively under pressure to deal with a stressful situation,” he said.

Cauley says the game is both timely, with experts predicting an increase in global pandemics, as well as useful for people who want to work in government. “It gives you a sense of what it would be like, not just for pandemics, but for natural disasters, too.”

Each student on the winning team received a $1,500 check and a medal from the competition sponsors, the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration and the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.