A Collaborative Program to Give Undergraduate Students the Opportunity to Explore Careers in Epidemiology and Public Health Laboratory Science.

The University of Texas at Austin Public Health Internship Program

UT Public Health Intern Program ImagesEducating and training the next generation of public health professionals to meet the challenges of the 21st century is of paramount importance. University students are keenly interested in learning about current topics in public health, but they have little understanding about the educational pathways and training that lead to public health careers. To help meet the public health workforce needs of the State of Texas, the School of Biological Sciences has entered into a partnership with the Texas Department of State Health Services (TDSHS) and the Austin Travis County Health and Human Services Department (ATCHHSD) to provide UT Austin students with the opportunity to gain experiential education in public health. Through this structured program, students conduct goal-oriented, one-semester research projects in epidemiology, laboratory science or field biology under the mentorship of state and local public health scientists or advanced "border health" research projects with Dr. Joseph B. McCormick, at the University of Texas School of Public Health, Brownsville Regional Campus. The program is open to undergraduates and post-baccalaureate students and to UTEACH Summer Master's students.

UT Public Health Intern Program ImagesParticipation in the program for students is via a competitive application process including an interview. A description of current research projects and the application can be found here. Students chosen as interns complete 180 hours of work for the semester and are evaluated based on measurable outcomes, including attendance, on-the-job performance, the maintenance of journals and final oral presentations and written reports summarizing their results. Interns derive many benefits from participating in this program including, 1) an in-depth appreciation of the research process, 2) greatly improved oral and written communication skills, 3) an understanding of the differences between a university setting and a professional work environment, and 4) the chance to work alongside generous mentors who so willingly share their knowledge of public health and their personal experiences in the field.

Program Impact: Undergraduate and Post-Baccalaureate Students

Since the Public Health Internship Program was launched in September 2004, 79 undergraduates and post-baccalaureate students have completed public health research projects. The program has provided these students with a capstone experience for their undergraduate education and with real-world experiences in public health that have influenced their career choices and been instrumental in their acceptance into graduate schools of public health. Students have been positively impacted to pursue careers in public health as a result of their internship experiences. Of the 58 undergraduate students who have completed the program and graduated from the university, 15 have entered a graduate school of public health to seek MPH (13/15) or Ph.D. degrees (2/15). Two of these students were accepted into highly ranked graduate schools of public health and both were offered generous fellowships to finance their graduate educations. In addition, six former interns have been or are now employed in the Laboratory Services Section at TDSHS, directly contributing to the public health workforce in Texas.

Program Impact: Public Health Agencies and the Citizens of Texas

The research projects conducted by UT Austin public health interns have assisted public health scientists in their mission to protect the health of the citizens of Texas. The program has allowed senior department staff to conduct projects that would not have been possible otherwise because of limited staff. Student interns have contributed to the development of new laboratory methodologies and to the collection and assessment of information related to the incidence and epidemiology of infectious diseases. Areas of research have included bioterrorism preparedness, the link between tuberculosis and diabetes along the Texas-Mexico border, prevention of Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in Texas high school athletes, the development of new laboratory tests to screen Texas newborns for metabolic disorders, and environmental studies of Texas coastal waters. Such research enhances the ability of both the TDSHS and ATCHHSD to effectively develop and implement intervention and control measures that help safeguard the public's health in Texas. Finally, through this program, both the university and its public health partners are contributing to the education and development of the future members of the public health workforce.

What students are saying about the Public Health Internship Program:

“This internship has been the single most interesting and rewarding thing I have done in my four years at the University of Texas. Coming into the project, I knew almost nothing of molecular biology laboratory procedures or theory. However, that changed on the first day in the lab. Dr. Tanksley has since served as a fantastic teacher and mentor, helping me every step of the way and ensuring the success of this project. I feel like this project has made a positive difference not only in my life, but also in the lives of all those who are affected by the disease galactosemia as well as the families and doctors of those patients."

"This opportunity has been crucial to my undergraduate experience for it has confirmed my interest in epidemiology. As an undergraduate there are few options to explore the field of public health. I feared my lack of real-world experience would be a hindrance, in regards to my acceptance into a graduate program and my confidence in choosing the right career. I have been accepted into several top schools of public health with scholarship offers from all but one. I will be attending Harvard School of Public health this coming fall, where I have been awarded a Goldsmith Fellowship. I am confident that my acceptances and fellowships are due to my involvement in the public health internship program."

"The people I met and the experiences I lived have become memorable and of great benefit both personally and professionally. The positive feedback received from the people at TDSHS left me with a desire to continue in the field."

"This was an extremely rewarding experience for me. I was able to experience life as close to a public health professional as I can get without formal training. I was able to conduct a research project which I felt I have direct control of the design and implementation. The professional mentor to whom I was assigned provided guidance throughout the project. This project has raised my level of professionalism."