The American Rescue Plan, passed in 2021, included an unprecedented $7.6 billion investment in public health workforce development. With a portion of those funds, APHL has been working with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to create multiple new career pathways into public health laboratories and bolster professional opportunities for students, early-career scientists and experienced laboratorians. Through new academic partnerships, these efforts aim to improve the diversity and sustainability of the public health workforce.
“Our goal is to bring people to public health laboratories who previously might not have seen themselves here, and show them that there are viable career paths,” said Maureen Drinkard, PhD, APHL’s director of Experiential Learning.
One focus this year has been a massive expansion of the APHL-CDC Laboratory Fellowship Program, which matches early-career scientists with host laboratories for a one- to two-year experiential program. Fellows receive hands-on experience in their host laboratory, as well as training through a competency-based core curriculum provided by APHL. They also benefit from extensive professional development opportunities, including support to attend conferences, take training courses or pursue certifications.
In the past 5-10 years, APHL had been able to only support around 20 fellows per year due to funding constraints. Now, the expanded program currently has 135 fellows and plans to enroll several hundred in coming years. In support of the larger program, “we’ve created a whole new curriculum, application and matching process that really works to match fellows’ skills and abilities to the mentors’ project-specific needs,” Drinkard said.
Bachelor-level candidates might be placed in broad projects, with the goal of exposing them to multiple areas and helping them identify an area of interest within public health laboratory science. Fellows with master’s and doctoral degrees are matched to projects that can help them apply and deepen their expertise in their chosen specialty.
For the first time, APHL will also be able to engage students through a new laboratory internship program. The joint APHL-CDC initiative will enroll about 100 undergraduate and master’s students each year to gain laboratory experience in a public health setting. Students can do this program part-time while they are pursuing their degree program. Most internships will last 12 to 16 weeks, but they can be tailored to accommodate shorter or longer terms based on student and mentor needs.
While the fellowships cater to individuals who are already pursuing scientific tracks, the internships cast a wide net to bring students from a variety of backgrounds into public health laboratories. “We’ll take art majors, business majors, graphic design, all sorts—after all, there is a need to have a graphic designer in a public health laboratory to make a really great piece of educational material,” Drinkard said. “This is an experience to expose interns to as many facets of public health laboratory work as possible.”
The students work with their mentors to develop goals for the internship and identify a project or other laboratory work for the duration of their time. They complete APHL training modules in topics, such as laboratory safety and ethics, and submit a final report at the end. They can arrange to receive school credit as well as a stipend.
To support enrollment in new programs, APHL is also building a team focused on establishing academic partnerships with a wide range of institutions across the country. New regional outreach coordinators will help build and manage relationships with institutions, assist with recruitment of applicants and hosts, and provide support for mentors, interns and fellows throughout the term of a placement.
Through these efforts, fellows and interns may be placed in a range of non-traditional public health partners, such as veterinary, agricultural and academic labs, as well as public health laboratories. Recruitment efforts are broad as well, including historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, tribal colleges and universities, and community colleges. “We want to be equity-minded and show people, especially anyone who has not been fairly represented in public health, that there are career opportunities and important contributions they can make in this field,” Drinkard said.
The programs aim to pave the way for interns and fellows to move into positions at their mentor laboratory or another public health laboratory. But even for those who leave public health, the experience will leave a mark, Drinkard said. “They aren’t leaving the laboratory behind entirely. No matter where they go, they’ll carry with them that special knowledge that comes with serving a public health mission.”