Lab Matters Winter 2022 | Page 12

she could not interrupt her full-time public health laboratory career to move somewhere to obtain a PhD . The nearest doctoral program is 200 miles away .
But that ’ s where the University of South Florida came in . In 2017 , USF accepted its first cohort of students into its new doctor of public health ( DrPH ) program focused specifically on public health and clinical laboratory science and practice — the only one in the country focused on laboratories . The program was purposefully developed to be mostly online , allowing current public health laboratory employees to earn their DrPH while staying in their current roles .
Several public health leaders united to campaign for such a program after a 2011 workforce survey from APHL and the University of Michigan illustrated major pipeline issues . More than half of public health laboratories expected up to 15 percent of their workers to retire or leave within five years . They cited the two most common barriers to recruitment as lack of opportunities for promotion and lack of a career path for advancement .
USF was a good fit for a new program . “ We already had an existing DrPH program that was in leadership , and that program is also 100 percent online because the program wants to attract people who are already working in the field ,” explained Jill Roberts , PhD , MS , MPH , CPH , director of the DrPH program and associate professor in the USF College of Public Health . “ We recognize that we can ’ t pull those people out of their jobs . The whole point of the program is for them to advance in their jobs , not to disrupt their careers .”
USF has been a leader in online education , Roberts said , also offering an online Graduate Certificate in Infection Control program that is the largest certification program for the College of Public Health .
From a job satisfaction standpoint , our current employees enjoy mentoring fellows ; that ’ s kind of a value-add to their job , even though it ’ s a little more work ,” he said . “ It gives our staff the opportunity to be mentors and teach ”
Thomas Kirn , MD , PhD
The DrPH laboratory program continues to grow , from a handful of students admitted each year to its largest class of 10 students starting in fall 2022 . New scholarships through APHL from American Rescue Act funds are partially responsible for the increase . The scholarships pay tuition plus a stipend , which can help cover the travel costs for the three required one-week on-site institutes at USF . Several of the past two years ’ cohorts are receiving funding . ( Roberts welcomes any questions about the DrPH program : jcrobert @ usf . edu .)
Since 2017 , five students have graduated from USF with their DrPH and three have become laboratory directors . More directors are expected as they graduate — and no longer hit that career ceiling .
“ The public health laboratories are underappreciated , they ’ re underfunded , and the individuals who work there are underpaid ,” Roberts said . “ So for us to be able to give them an opportunity to see some fruits of their labors in their dedication to those laboratories is fantastic .”
From her home and office in the Central Valley of California , Lopez earned her DrPH and passed her boards . She became laboratory director on August 1 , 2022 . She had been managing the laboratory while their retired former director stayed on part-time to serve as the CLIA director .
Her DrPH has not only helped her career , it has given her laboratory more stability with a full-time director who has no plans to leave the area she grew up in . And it ’ s filled in a missing educational piece , offering an opportunity to her laboratory staff who were able to earn a bachelor ’ s degree nearby and a master ’ s in public health online but didn ’ t have a feasible doctorate option .
“ Especially when you ’ re talking about upward mobility for people that live in traditionally underserved areas , rural agricultural communities , the key to that upward mobility is access to higher education ,” Lopez said . “ And this was a piece that was missing for our laboratory and so many other laboratories that are located far away from universities . It opens the door not only for the laboratory to have a sustainable path of succession for highly qualified individuals , but also to lift up members of our existing community , as opposed to just relying on recruiting talent from without .” g
10 LAB MATTERS Winter 2022
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