The one constant in the past several years has been change. In the face of intense demands, uncertainty and shifting conditions, public health laboratories have responded with determination, resilience and creativity. The resulting innovation and successes highlight the evolving role that labs can play in public health and in their communities.

In late 2022 and early 2023, “we were just coming out of what is likely to be the greatest pandemic we will ever know,” said APHL president Tim Southern, MS, PhD, D(ABMM).

APHL leadership realized the opportunity to take a pause and reflect on the organization’s identity, values and future. The physical headquarters got a refresh with a move to a new space in Bethesda. And leaders engaged the membership to come together and define what they want and need as a community.

Then-president Daphne Ware, PhD, helped convene a diverse group of representatives from APHL and member labs all across the country. Through facilitated discussions over several months, the group identified a core set of values for the organization and its member laboratories, to capture the essence of the community and its public health mission—“those things at the heart of what we do as member laboratories every day,” Southern said.

As announced at APHL 2023, APHL adopted four core values to guide its own work and those of member organizations:

COMMUNITY

We actively foster meaningful connections and belonging among members and partners to promote collaboration, growth, and diversity of thought that maximizes our contributions to advance public health.

INNOVATION

We meet the diverse and ever-changing public health landscape through forward-thinking and adaptive leadership.

DIVERSITY, EQUITY, INCLUSION AND ACCESSIBILITY

We embrace, promote and model a culture of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEI) and recognize it as essential to the work we perform and the communities we serve.

SCIENTIFIC AND PROFESSIONAL INTEGRITY

We are a trusted leader in public health, striving for continuous improvement and the highest level of ethics and honesty in laboratory science and practice.

The list should feel familiar, Southern said. “We’ve always been living these values. Now we’ve finally put them on paper to show to ourselves and our partners the values we are committed to in public health laboratory science.”

A SOLID FRAMEWORK

These values serve as a framework to anchor APHL’s and member laboratories’ programs, priorities and actions. One place where they shine is in the expansion of workforce development efforts. The Career Pathways in Public Health Laboratory Science: An APHL-CDC Initiative is increasing the flow of new public health professionals into laboratories, while supporting current staff through career growth and professional development.

“Public health laboratories have tremendous workforce needs. We are developing relationships to help more people know about our public health labs and see themselves in laboratory jobs,” said Josh Rowland, MBA, MLS(ASCP), APHL’s director of experiential learning. “Meanwhile, we can support people already in the workforce as they advance their careers in the public health laboratory. We’re developing the next generation of leaders right within laboratories.”

“Public health
laboratories have
tremendous
workforce needs.”

 

– Josh Rowland, MBA, MLS(ASCP)
Director, Experiential Learning, APHL.

These efforts start at the beginning of the pipeline, through a new internship program and greatly expanded fellowship program to provide experience and training in laboratory science. The Public Health Laboratory Fellowship Program has now matched hundreds of early-career scientists with host laboratories for one- to two-year placements. To support interest, it has grown to support four cohorts per year with a continuously open application. “We now support projects in nine focus areas, and each project simultaneously meets a public health initiative and trains fellows for a career in a public health laboratory,” said fellowship program manager Rob Nickla, CBSP, RBP(ABSA)CM, QLS, M(ASCP)CM.

The new Public Health Laboratory Internship Program launched in late March 2023 to give students early exposure to public health laboratories through paid work experiences. For 12-16 weeks, the interns get to see the wide range of science underway in a working laboratory, as well as sample accessioning, data management and reporting. Beyond bench science, they also develop professional skills, said Internship Program Manager Mariane Wolfe, MS, MLS(ASCP)CM. The program is open to bachelor’s and master’s-level students in any field of study, and laboratories can engage interns in any aspect of laboratory operations, such as information technology, communications or training.

For students, the exposure to the work is rewarding, as is the direct connection to their community, she said. “It’s really beneficial for an intern to see the intricacies of what is required to run the tests and gather data that helps inform the community.”

Mentors, too, are finding the experience valuable, Wolfe said. One mentor appreciated the opportunity to build management and mentoring skills outside of a formal supervisory role. Another found the student onboarding process very useful for refining laboratory procedures.

COMMUNITY AMBASSADORS

By serving as mentors to interns and fellows, current laboratory professionals increase the visibility of career paths within public health laboratories. APHL’s Public Health Laboratory Ambassadors Program offers another way to get involved. This new initiative helps laboratory professionals step out of the lab and share their stories with their local communities.

The idea grew from a project by Emerging Leaders Program Cohort 16 and launched formally through APHL in May 2023 to support staff who engage in outreach and education efforts in their communities. These activities can take many forms, said Dana Baker, EdD, MBA, MS, MLS(ASCP)CM, manager of academic partnerships. Someone might attend a career day at a local college, present at a conference or visit a K-12 classroom to talk about career paths in public health.

“That’s where it starts—just increasing awareness that there’s a public health laboratory in your backyard, and these are the people who are supporting communities through the work that they do,” said Baker. “Through that visibility and engagement, our ambassadors can increase interest by others to explore careers in public health labs.”

APHL has many resources to help first-time Ambassadors find opportunities, prepare talks and develop materials. And it’s not just for scientists. Laboratories need HVAC specialists, accountants, electricians, marketing staff and more, Baker notes. Ambassadors can raise laboratories’ visibility to a wide range of potential workers who may not have considered a career in public health.

For participants, it’s a chance to sharpen outreach and communication skills and build more connections with the local community. “It kind of reinvigorates your ‘why,’” Baker said. “Once you have that personal connection with people outside of the laboratory and when you see them get excited about what you do—it can make you more excited about what you do, too.”

Baker hopes to engage ambassadors from a wide variety of backgrounds, experiences and communities. “Representation matters,” she said. “Seeing someone who looks like me and comes from a community like mine and is actually out there as a scientist—that’s really critical.”

The public health workforce should reflect the whole community it serves, she notes, which might include people who are interested in changing careers later in life, or veterans making the transition from active duty into civilian life. “This is an opportunity for laboratory professionals to advance equity in their communities, by making these opportunities visible in front of broader audiences.”

CURRENT AND FUTURE LEADERS

This year has also seen growth in APHL’s programs to support leadership and professional development for established laboratory professionals.

One is the Emerging Leaders Program (ELP), where capacity limitations have often forced the program to turn down qualified applicants, said Kathleen Street, MS, PMP, manager of leadership programs. This year, they restructured the program and added additional staff to be able to expand next year’s ELP cohort from 10 to 25 participants from member laboratories.

The content will be more focused toward supporting laboratory professionals who are looking to improve their leadership skills, whether for immediate application or for future use. “We’re doing more customization of the program, so we can engage more people and meet their needs in an efficient way,” Street said.

After the program ends, an ELP alumni network continues the program’s momentum and promotes further collaboration. Now about 200 strong, the network is forging stronger connections between alums and active cohorts.

“It’s truly this collaborative village of individuals.”

 

– Kathleen Street, MS, PMP, Manager, Leadership Programs, APHL.

For those in director roles, the new Laboratory Leaders of Today (LLOT) program graduated its first cohort in September 2023, with 30 people finishing the program and up to 65 involved in partial capacity throughout the year.

LLOT combines in-person meetings—including a chance to meet CDC staff and visit the headquarters in Atlanta—with a variety of virtual meetings and breakout groups where participants can engage in guided conversations, ask questions, and share and learn from others’ experiences.

When the initial cohort wanted to stay connected after the program finished, APHL started an alumni network for LLOT. By remaining active in the LLOT ColLABorate site, alumni are already connected with the current group of 15 participants. Some also have an opportunity to guide the program’s future. “Individuals have wanted to continue to serve on the planning committee in an alumni role,” Street said. “They’re very interested in growing that network and continuing to collaborate.”

The Board Examination Boot Camp also continues to expand. This free, multi-week, virtual program helps individuals preparing for one of the board certification exams for laboratory directors of high complexity testing. Weekly facilitated virtual meetings feature topical quizzes and subject matter experts who can offer guidance on the questions and best answers. Participants can access thousands of flashcards and other resources, as well as a community of others preparing for what is a notoriously challenging exam. Said Street, “It’s truly this collaborative village of individuals who just want to help out those who are studying for these tests.”

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