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5 Questions for Jill Roberts, Leah Gillis, Andy Cannons – USF COPH DrPH Concentration Faculty and APHL members

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The DrPH Public Health and Clinical Laboratory Science and Practice program at the University of South Florida is uniquely designed to meet the needs of working laboratory professionals and strengthen the pipeline of public health laboratory leaders. We discussed the origins of the program, APHL’s pivotal involvement and its impact on the field with three APHL members who have helped guide it since its inception.

Jill Roberts, PhD, MS, MPH, CPH, is associate professor in the College of Public Health, Global and Planetary Health at the University of South Florida; Leah Gillis, PhD, MS, HCLD(ABB), is adjunct professor in the University of South Florida College of Public Health and chair of the APHL Workforce Development Committee; and Andy Cannons, PhD, HCLD(ABB), is laboratory director, Bureau of Public Health Laboratories – Tampa with the Florida Department of Health, and chair of the APHL Public Health Preparedness and Response Committee.

Q1: Can you tell us about the DrPH Public Health and Clinical Laboratory Science and Practice program?

Jill: The University of South Florida College of Public Health (USF COPH) created the Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) program to address a growing need for career advancement for experienced, and currently employed, public health employees. It is designed to allow public health leaders to continue their current employment while completing our program. The program expanded to include the laboratory track as it was recognized that pathways for career advancement in public health laboratories were limited. The DrPH program benefits laboratory scientists in that they maintain their current employment while the labs supply the necessary setting for bench research.

Our program is entirely online, except for three short institutes that students attend in the first two years of enrollment. These institutes provide networking and advising, and some courses are completed during five days of attendance.

All of the students in our DrPH program learn core public health leadership skills such as public health practice and scholarly writing. The students in the laboratory concentration will learn laboratory management, microbiology, molecular biology, laboratory safety and bioinformatics. These skills will aid in the development of a doctoral project.

The doctoral project focus can be quite broad but most of students are aiming for the American Board of Bioanalysis High-complexity Clinical Laboratory Director (ABB HCLD) certification examination and will design bench research projects. Some of our past research includes waterborne pathogens, COVID, Candida auris and PFAS detection.  

Q2: How did the program come about?

Leah and Andy: While there wasn’t any hard data, it was pretty evident to some public health laboratory leaders that there was going to be a dearth of laboratory scientists who were both available and qualified to take over public health laboratories in the next 10-20 years. Lab directors were going to retire and there was no plan to replace them. This fear was substantiated when a 2006 Public Health Leadership Institute report clearly identified that there was a severe and continuing shortage of qualified, doctorate-level, public health laboratory  scientist-managers available to succeed the currently retiring generation of public health lab directors. Who was going to take over the ships so to speak?

Another document published in 2013 by the APHL Workforce Development Committee—“Developing a Doctoral Program in Public Health Laboratory Science and Practice”—supported the evidence and added some hope. This report summarized the current and possible future shortage of public health laboratory directors and stated that a dedicated doctoral program was urgently needed to ensure a future workforce of public health laboratory leaders. This doctoral degree needed to be available nationwide and be cost-effective and consequently rely on distance learning as a major program strategy. There was no way that staff currently working in a public health lab could afford to take off time to be enrolled at a college to take a doctoral degree for six or seven years! It just wouldn’t be feasible.

So fast-forward to 2015 when, following a survey of possible sites, USF COPH, with its extensive experience and background in distance learning doctoral degrees, was identified as a site for a new doctoral degree. A team of APHL members, all voluntary and led by Dr. Phil Amuso, was stood up to get this degree going. In consultation with USF COPH faculty, the DrPH plan of study was designed that would educate laboratory scientists to become leaders in their field that also met the standards of the university. While some of the coursework was already in place, it was obvious that six new online courses needed to be designed and written that were specific for this new doctoral degree. APHL members were recruited to write the online lectures, which were all ready for when the degree was officially offered and the first cohort was recruited in 2017.

This was quite a terrifying adventure since we did not know if this online DrPH would be acceptable as a doctoral degree for graduates to apply for national certifications such as the ABB HCLD certification or by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services as a doctoral degree for CLIA directorship. It wasn’t until the first graduate of the program successfully was accepted to take the ABB certification, and passed, that we knew we had gotten it right! And that graduate is now a laboratory director!

Now in 2023, the DrPH has proven to be what we had hoped. It is a way for laboratory scientists, currently working, to earn a doctoral degree that will allow them ultimately to become laboratory directors.

Q3: Why is this program so unique?

Leah and Andy: One aspect of the program that makes it unique is the groundwork provided by the APHL Workforce Development Committee (WDC) almost a decade before the first student cohort was admitted to the program. Early on, the WDC Chairperson, Dr. Jack deBoy, led the effort of committee members and other members of APHL by preparing a workable timeline, developing surveys and writing multiple papers and articles for publication, in addition to advocating to the APHL Board of Directors for approval to continue working to solve the upcoming leadership shortage. The APHL Board of Directors established a Doctoral Program Workgroup with the major goal of contacting the deans of about 40 public health academic programs in the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health to determine the interest, if any, of their respective college or university in partnering with APHL to develop a Public Health Laboratory Science and Practice (PHLSAP) graduate degree program. In short, the effort to solve the approaching public health laboratory leadership dilemma was provided by APHL members for the benefit of current and future APHL members.

A second aspect of the uniqueness of the program relates to its focus during development on the public health laboratory workforce—that is, asking and answering the question—how do we make this degree amenable to public health lab staff? Now, most students seeking the degree are employed in a public health laboratory and an individual student’s selected doctoral project is conducted in a public health laboratory, usually addressing an issue or problem in the diagnosis or detection of a pathogen or chemical that is an emerging threat or is a known threat to the public’s health. And, importantly, the resulting publication of the different student dissertation projects appears in peer-reviewed journals, ultimately increasing the knowledge that is available and shared by all public health laboratories. 

The program’s unique design and curriculum development by APHL members in partnership with the USF COPH continues to close the forecasted public health lab director gap identified in 2006. It uses the elective courses developed by APHL member subject matter experts to prepare current public health laboratory staff to sit for a CLIA-approved board examination and, through this pathway, obtain the necessary certification for directing a high complexity laboratory.

Q4: What are graduates doing now?

Jill: Five students have graduated from our first cohort and all five have successfully passed the ABB HCLD examination. Four of those students are public health laboratory professionals serving in director roles including director of agency operations at the San Diego County Public Health Laboratory, director of the Santa Clara County Public Health Laboratory, director of the Tulare County Public Health Laboratory and assistant director of the Orange County Public Health Laboratory. Our program has also attracted laboratory scientists from clinical and industry laboratories in addition to public health. We are proud of our first clinical laboratory professional graduate who recently passed the ABB HCLD exam and is currently serving as the regional director of laboratory operations for PIH Health, Los Angeles.

The first graduate of the second cohort is currently serving as division manager at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and will likely take the HCLD exam soon. Three additional students, all public health laboratory scientists, are expected to graduate in the next few months.

Q5: How can interested candidates learn more and apply?

Jill: I encourage anyone who is interested in our program to reach out to me directly with questions. Our application system, SOPHAS, is now open through November 2023 for our Fall 2024 cohort. We look forward to receiving applications and welcoming our new students!

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