CDC Internship, Fellowship Program Enlightens Mentors and Mentees Alike
By Carolyn Bernhardt
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series sharing stories from participants in Public Health Entomology for All, an internship and fellowship program created through a partnership between the Entomological Society of America and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Read part one.
Last year, the inaugural cohort of interns and fellows in the Public Health Entomology for All (PHEFA) program reported to their posts in labs at various U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) locations. With the first few months of the program now in the rearview mirror, interns, fellows, mentors, and program leadership are reflecting on all they’ve learned so far and gearing up for the next round of program applications.
Fellows and interns alike began their appointments in Fort Collins, Atlanta, and Puerto Rico in June. Interns wrapped up their 10-week program in August and settled back into their undergrad routines, while fellows will continue on until next June. Wherever the far-flung mentees are, they are all looking forward to the Joint Annual Meeting of the Entomological Societies of America, Canada, and British Columbia in Vancouver in November, where the CDC and ESA will host a PHEFA reunion reception.
“We recognize we can do our best work when the public health workforce reflects the nation’s diversity, and right now it does not in the field of entomology,” says Susanna Visser, DrPH, MS, of the CDC who originally conceptualized the PHEFA program. “Our goal is to entice interns and fellows [from under-represented communities] into the field of public health entomology, give them an awareness and understanding of what we do, and [show them] how that leads to preventing and controlling vector-borne diseases.”
To prepare for hosting mentees, CDC mentors and program leadership underwent in-depth diversity, equity, and inclusion training. Then, Visser says, the program prioritized quality time among interns, fellows, and mentors to foster a sense of community. “We had a full week where we committed to each other. Helping each person feel accepted is the primary goal, and everything flows from that,” she says.
A Mutually Beneficial Experience
According to Visser, both mentees and mentors benefit from the program. While the interns and fellows gain hands-on experience in the field and the lab to make themselves competitive in the entomology job market, mentors gain new perspectives on contemplating and communicating about public health issues.
Plus, the mentees have helped move key research forward through their field- and lab-based contributions. “All our work is mapped to a mission of reducing illness and death due to vector-borne diseases,” Visser says. “That includes all the mentees’ work. They are all working toward achieving that mission.”
“Overall, I think it went really well. [My lab] will do it again next year,” says William Nicholson, Ph.D., a mentor in the PHEFA program who works in the Rickettsial Zoonoses Branch in the CDC’s Atlanta office. Next year, PHEFA will go from hosting six interns and two 1-year fellows to hosting six interns, four 1-year fellows, and four 2-year fellows. “I feel like it was a really good program and I am happy to see it expanding,” Nicholson says.
After Nicholson gave them a few project options, 2022 interns Kaitlyn Gorby and Carolina Yara Cespedes helped advance various projects related to tickborne disease. “They were the two people I put on my top list, and I was able to get [assigned to] them,” Nicholson says. “Leading up to [the internship] I was able to communicate with them ahead of time to match their skills up with projects.” Gorby tested various chemical combinations to generate carbon dioxide to attract ticks to a monitoring trap. Cespedes tested deer blood, serum, and ticks to evaluate tick-borne diseases with researchers at North Carolina State University.
In addition to their main projects, the interns were provided with opportunities to learn from other labs at the CDC, as well. “I arranged for them to spend a week with the mosquito group here in Atlanta,” Nicholson says. “They learned about mosquito biology, insecticide resistance testing, and learned to grow mosquitoes.”
Sharpening the Focus
Jacoby Clark, a one-year fellow based in the CDC’s Fort Collins office, echoes the value of mentees gaining experience in their expressed interest areas through the program. “My team has been very receptive to what I am comfortable doing, what I am not comfortable doing, what I want to learn, and what I don’t want to learn,” he says. “My advice to future applicants is to be open, be honest, and let them know what you are wanting to get out of [the experience].”
Clark will earn his M.S. in biology with a concentration in molecular and cellular biology/microbiology from San Francisco State University in fall 2022. He received his B.S. in human biology from North Carolina State University in 2020. His mentor at San Francisco State, Andrea Swei, Ph.D., told him about the fellowship.
In graduate school, he studied the interactive effects of climate change and wildlife defaunation on pathogen prevalence and diversity in tick vectors. He says he dreamt of working at the CDC for over a decade. And after completing his master’s, he wanted to pursue research with a more direct impact on public health before launching into a Ph.D. program. “I appreciated learning concepts and theory in academia, but hopefully in this fellowship I can take what I learned [in my graduate program] and apply it to the real world to reduce the vector-borne disease burden.”
Currently, Clark is working as a part of a national tick surveillance testing program. “We get ticks from around the country; states submit them to us,” he says. “We test them for different pathogens, looking for incidence of certain tickborne diseases in certain areas.” Right now, Clark is investigating strain diversity in Borrelia bacteria from ticks collected in the field in New York state. (The genus Borrelia contains several bacteria species that cause tickborne illness in humans, including Lyme disease.) “In the end, our goal is to see if the diversity of a Borrelia strains changes over time and if certain growth media select for different strains,” he says.
Clark says the fellowship has helped further develop the skills he built in undergrad and graduate school. “I have gotten a lot more confident with where I am going and where I might end up,” he says. He plans to apply for the two-year fellowship in 2023 so he can continue his work at the CDC.
“We were really excited about how the first year went,” Visser says. “The interns and fellows became a part of our CDC family, and when the interns graduated from the program, it was difficult to let them go.” For next year, Visser says students and young scientists who are inquisitive, curious, have experience in any of the allied sciences, and interested in the field of entomology are encouraged to apply. “We are looking for enthusiastic applicants.”
Entomological Society of America and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention