By Laura Siegel, Specialist, National Center for Public Health Laboratory Leadership, APHL
Last Tuesday around 8:30am I was standing in the Student Activity Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Normally I wouldn’t expect to see much of anything on a college campus this early in the morning, but that morning students decked out in red T-shirts were filtering into the hall. I was thinking to myself, “Either they must be in the wrong place, or I am….” Eventually I caught a glimpse of the slogan on their shirts and realized we were both there for the same event: UT’s Disease Detectives Conference on public health careers.
On April 10, over 200 university students donated their time to serve as volunteers for the University of Texas at Austin’s Become a Disease Detective: Discover Public Health! conference and an additional 600 participants stopped by throughout the day, making the fifth year of Disease Detectives one of the most successful.
Disease Detectives introduces university students, faculty and pre-health advisors to career opportunities in the field of public health. This year’s conference featured over 30 exhibitors and approximately 30 scientific presenters, including Sam Stew, APHL/CDC EID fellow at the Iowa State Hygienic Laboratory, Dave Carpenter, former laboratory director of the Illinois State Public Health Laboratory, and Joseph McCormick and Susan Fisher-Hoch, both longtime public health advocates and former CDC staff. I was there on behalf of APHL’s National Center for Public Health Laboratory Leadership (NCPHLL) along with three of my colleagues.
Over the course of the day, I spoke with many students studying a wide array of subjects including microbiology, biochemistry, public health, medical laboratory science, sociology, English and more. However, the one common theme I heard over and over again was: “I didn’t know public health existed as a career field until [fill in the blank], but I wish I found out sooner.”
Here are a few quotes from attendees:
“It wasn’t until about 4 years ago at this conference – otherwise I did not know about this field,” Sam Stew, Emerging Infectious Disease Fellow, Iowa State Hygienic Laboratory.
“When I learned about public health laboratories, I was stunned at the huge scale of what a public health lab could do,” Lauren Rego, Biochemistry student, University of Texas – Austin.
“If I had known about public health, my career path would have been a lot easier,” Vanessa Telles, program specialist, emergency preparedness branch, Texas Department of State Health Services.
“Public health has always been around, but a lot of people have a misunderstanding of what it really is,” Jerry Fan, Microbiology student, University of Texas – Austin.
“Public health is often not publicized – you only ever hear about it when there are outbreaks and disasters and that’s when we need it most… but we have to keep the infrastructure going,” Byron Barksdale, Biochemistry student, University of Texas – Austin.
The goal of Disease Detectives and many other NCPHLL activities (funding for STEM festivals, promotion of Labsciencecareers.com, APHL’s storytelling project) is to bring public health out of the woodwork and increase student knowledge and interest in the field. If nothing else, the talented, passionate and dedicated students I met at UT-Austin are proof to me that Disease Detectives and similar events DO impact both the academic and career choices of students, and I hope to see more like them in the future.