It looks like a scene from one of the countless reality shows based in Alaska: the main character is bundled up, but still cold. She has just boarded a small five-person bush plane after arriving to the landing strip via snow machine. Then, she takes off on a flight flying east toward Anchorage from the southwest coastal area of Alaska. She’s looking at the land beneath her, noticing how it changes from vast tundra to an intricate network of rivers and streams to beautiful mountain ranges. She’s returning from a small village of Alaska Natives where she was assisting with a public health study, and had the opportunity to hear the Yup’ik Eskimo language and purchase native crafts. Sound like an adventure? Well, it is – only I’m the main character and this is just a small part of my experience as an APHL/CDC Emerging Infectious Diseases (EID) Training Fellow.
As a microbiology major in college, I was fascinated with infectious diseases. It wasn’t until I traveled to Lima, Peru during my junior year of college that I discovered public health. I worked with a group of student volunteers to deliver mobile health clinics to impoverished communities. While others were interested in medicine or dentistry, I wanted to know more about big picture solutions that would improve health on a community level. The following year, I was able to combine my interests of microbiology and public health during a semester-long internship at the Vermont Department of Health Laboratory learning techniques in microbiology and how a public health laboratory functions. I was hooked! I wanted to learn even more so I applied to the EID fellowship program. I was ecstatic when I was accepted the following summer!
After narrowing down potential host laboratories for my year-long fellowship, I chose CDC’s Arctic Investigations Program (AIP) in Alaska because of the unique opportunity it would provide. AIP focuses on vaccine-preventable diseases and emerging infections, particularly ones that disproportionately affect the Alaska Native people. From networking with international partners for circumpolar surveillance to collaborating with local agencies here in Anchorage, AIP is certainly fundamental in enhancing public health in the state of Alaska and the arctic.
My fellowship has been incredibly diverse and has exceeded my expectations. In addition to village trips, I have trained in traditional microbiology and molecular diagnostics within AIP. My main project involves looking at the population structure of Streptococcus pneumoniae (bacteria that cause invasive diseases, including meningitis and bacteremia), using a type of DNA sequencing called multilocus sequence typing (MLST). I have also been active outside of AIP: I rotated through the Alaska State Public Health Laboratory for two weeks, and I am currently assisting on a cellular immunity project with Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. I will also be training at the Alaska State Virology Laboratory in June.
When I told others I picked AIP as my host lab, I received many strange looks. People couldn’t believe I was moving all the way to Alaska from the east coast! However, I couldn’t be happier with my decision. My goal was to make the most out of my fellowship opportunity – to learn as much as possible, and to get hands-on experience in many different areas – and I have certainly done that. Each day, I work with an amazing group of people who are truly dedicated to their work, and they inspire me to continue on my path in public health.