Lab Matters Fall 2023 | Page 4


Public Health on the Frontier

Timothy Southern , PhD President , APHL
When I graduated high school , kiddos like me who had an interest in science were told we could go into teaching or medicine . As a high school student , I always enjoyed science , and I developed a very strong interest in research and medicine during my first years in college . It wasn ’ t until I went to the National Institutes of Health for a postdoctoral fellowship 13 years later that I finally realized the exquisite intersection of science , research and medicine was just screaming “ public health ” at me . I think it is poignant when I look back and reflect on how little discussion there was about public health careers in high school and college , and how long it took me to find my true career path . We as a community have a lot of work to do to ensure we recruit and nurture the next generations of public health laboratory scientists and leaders . I am thankful for those of you who have taken up this banner and are working with academic institutions to reinforce existing training programs , implement new training programs and to open the horizons of students searching for a rewarding career , all while promoting inclusion and diversity within our ranks .
I think one of the most profound changes I experienced in South Dakota , even more than the impact of rapid innovation in science and technology during the pandemic , is the visibility of public health and public health laboratories . Before the pandemic , folks didn ’ t know much about public health laboratories . We did our jobs , and because we were good at our jobs , we tended to stay out-of-sight and out-of-mind . The pandemic changed that . Public health laboratories were thrust into the spotlight and became profoundly valued members of the public health community .
Unfortunately , our community is approaching a time when public health laboratories and the services we provide risk losing visibility and the critical support we need . We have already seen recission of federal funding , a loss that has touched all jurisdictions . I am very thankful to APHL and our members who continue to advocate f0r the resources we all need to not just maintain our programs but to continue building so that we can address the threats of tomorrow . Please continue to tell your stories to all who will listen because these efforts will help define how we deliver critical public health laboratory services in the postpandemic era .
I believe what defines a public health laboratory is fundamentally changing . For decades , public health laboratories were the teams that provided testing both as a part of routine duties and as a part of outbreak detection and response . During that time , I believe our role and impact as subject matter experts was largely understated . Throughout the pandemic , our scientists and leaders became the subject matter experts that reached into communities to better understand local public health needs , including the needs of populations at risk for severe disease outcomes . I believe the future will require public health laboratory scientists and leaders to be bridgebuilders , partners and collaborators with the diverse populations we serve . I also believe that public health laboratories must lead continuous development of the broader laboratory systems within our jurisdictions . I look forward to working with each of you as we continue working toward strong laboratory systems capable of adapting to changing public health needs .
There are profound unmet needs among our member laboratories , especially those laboratories that serve predominantly rural and frontier populations . But as the pandemic proved , we are just as likely to see public health deserts in urban settings as we are in rural communities . A priority for my term is to bring members together and to find ways to drive improvement of public health laboratory service delivery to our most vulnerable populations . I want to shine a bright light on what it means to be a laboratory in a predominantly rural and frontier state , what it means to serve rural , frontier and tribal populations who are culturally diverse and geographically separated from critical public health infrastructure and explore ways to improve public health laboratory service delivery to populations with profound vulnerabilities .
In the coming months , there will be an opportunity for you to support an initiative that seeks to understand rural , frontier and tribal community needs and then explore solutions to better meet those needs . I will ask you to help me better understand what it means to overcome the geographic and financial isolation of tribal , rural and frontier communities , and to explore solutions that will make the services that we provide more accessible and more affordable . As a part of this initiative , we will establish what it means to be a trusted voice to culturally diverse populations , how to engage those populations to better understand community needs and how to improve the flow of resources in severely resourcelimited communities .
Even though I think I stumbled into public health , the reality is that an amazing public health career found me . I am fortunate to have had so many dedicated colleagues , mentors and friends in our community — wonderful people who helped me navigate my first decade of public health laboratory service . I truly appreciate being a member of a community committed to diversity , equity , inclusion and accessibility , and I am thankful to be surrounded by a community of professionals who know we still have important work to do to ensure public health for our diverse communities . Thank you for this opportunity to “ pay it forward .” I am looking forward to having these deep conversations with all of you as the year progresses . g
2 LAB MATTERS Fall 2023
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