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Master’s Program in Vector-Borne Diseases Tackles Need for Medical Entomologists

Closeup of a small glass vial held between a thumb and middle finger, in which five life stages of a blacklegged tick are suspended: egg, larva, nymph, adult male, and adult female.

With the growing occurrence and range of diseases spread by insects and arthropods, the U.S. has been in serious need of more trained medical entomologists. Such skilled experts serve to protect the U.S. from public-health threats posed by vectors such as the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), shown here in multiple life stages suspended in a vial. A CDC-supported master’s degree program in vector-borne disease biology at Cornell University is one effort to address this shortage directly. (Photo courtesy of Northeast Regional Center for Excellence in Vector-Borne Diseases, Cornell University)

By John P. Roche, Ph.D.

The U.S. has a serious shortage of medical entomologists specializing in vector-borne diseases. The number of vector biologists has been declining for decades, and, at the same time, the number of arthropod vectors and the number of vector-borne diseases have been increasing in North America. The shortage of professionals in the field was highlighted when West Nile virus, spread by Culex mosquitoes, became an emerging mosquito-borne disease in North America in 1999. It was further highlighted when Zika virus, spread by Aedes mosquitoes, broke out in Miami, Florida in 2015 and 2016.

To help address this shortage, in 2017 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) established five Regional Centers of Excellence in Vector-Borne Diseases. The Centers of Excellence initiative aimed to create programs that could improve vector-disease preparedness in three areas: applied research; communities of practice connecting public, private, and academic stake holders; and programs to train medical entomologists and public health professionals. One of the five Centers of Excellence is the Northeast Regional Center for Excellence in Vector-Borne Diseases program (NEVBD) at Cornell University, which addressed the third goal by establishing the Master of Science in Entomology: Vector-Borne Disease Biology program. In an article published in August in the Journal of Medical Entomology, program director Laura Harrington, Ph.D., and program manager Emily Mader discuss the rationale, design, and success of the vector-borne disease master’s program.

From 2017 to 2022, the CDC invested over $51 million in the first five Centers of Excellence. In addition to the NEVBD program at Cornell, regional Centers of Excellence were established at the University of Florida; University of California, Davis; University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston; and University of Wisconsin at Madison. The CDC reports that these Centers of Excellence have trained over 5,000 students and vector-control professionals, created regional centers for vector surveillance, and evaluated vector control strategies.

The NEVBD’s M.S. program in vector-borne disease biology was created within Cornell’s Department of Entomology. It is a two-year master’s program that, Harrington and Mader explain, seeks to “train the next generation of public health entomologists.” Students take 13 required courses, plus electives and research credits, for a total of 60 credits. They also complete a summer research experience leading to a publishable two-chapter thesis. The required courses are taught in the Cornell Department of Entomology and the Master of Public Health programs. Design of the M.S. program was informed by feedback collected from public health professionals throughout the northeastern U.S.

“Our center is guided by the need to develop innovative training for current and future public health professionals, applied research in key questions on tick and mosquito-borne disease, and supporting a community of practice that connects academic, public health, and community audiences,” Harrington says.

The program has five key areas of focus:

  1. to instill an understanding of the biology, behavior, and taxonomy of arthropods;
  2. to teach knowledge of vector-borne pathogens of global and regional importance;
  3. to examine vector-borne disease prevention and control strategies;
  4. to evaluate the impact of public health systems on the transmission of vector-borne diseases;
  5. to train students to be successful public-health-vector-biology professionals.
A group of nine people pose in two rows (five in back standing, four in front kneeling) in a hallway in front of a glass wall to the outside.

Graduates of the Master of Science in Entomology: Vector-Borne Disease Biology program at Cornell University from the 2021 and 2022 cohorts. The goal of the program is to help train a new generation of vector biologists to address a critical shortage of medical entomologists in the U.S. Program director Laura Harrington, Ph.D., is in the back row, second from right. (Photo courtesy of Northeast Regional Center for Excellence in Vector-Borne Diseases, Cornell University)

Students in the M.S. program provided before-and-after self-evaluations over the course of their studies and also received an end-of-program comprehensive competency exam. “We found significant improvement of students over the course of the program,” Mader says. The biggest reported improvement in competency was seen following the students’ work on their summer research project. This highlights the power of active-engagement research experiences to help trainees master technical skills.

The program is off to a great start, having trained 10 masters students so far in three cohorts. The program at Cornell and others like it at the other CDC Centers of Excellence are helping close the gap in the need for medical entomology professionals. And, in so doing, they will enhance society’s ability to respond to emerging vector-borne disease threats. “The end goal of our center work is to improve the lives of those living in our communities through the prevention of exposure to ticks and mosquitoes and the diseases they carry,” Harrington says.

Harrington and Mader’s Journal of Medical Entomology paper provides a detailed roadmap of the creation and execution of Cornell’s M.S. in Entomology: Vector-Borne Disease Biology program. “We hope that the information contained in our paper as well as the curriculum materials and assessment tools we share will enable other institutions to develop their own highly effective public health entomology graduate training programs,” Harrington says.

John P. Roche, Ph.D., is a book author, biologist, and science writer with a Ph.D. and postdoctoral training in the biological sciences and a dedication to making rigorous science clear and accessible. He authors books and articles and writes materials for universities, scientific societies, and publishers. Professional experience includes serving as a scientist and scientific writer at Indiana University, Boston College, and the UMass Chan Medical School, and serving as a visiting professor at four tier-one colleges and universities.

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