COPH offers unique program to train public health laboratory directors

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The doctoral-level program was created in response to a projected workforce shortage

The University of South Florida  College of Public Health has launched a unique training program  addressing the impending shortage of public health laboratory directors.

Dr. Jill Roberts, assistant professor in the Department of Global Health, is coordinating the college’s new lab science and practice program for doctor of public health (DrPH) students.

At the federal, state and local levels, public health laboratories are critical for monitoring and detecting health threats ranging from rabies and dengue fever to radiological contaminants, genetic disorders in newborns and bioterrorism agents, according to the Association of Public Health Laboratories.  Yet, a national workforce survey conducted in 2011 demonstrated that nearly a quarter of existing laboratory directors would retire within five years, Roberts said.

“Public health laboratories are vital components of the nation’s health infrastructure, but they currently lack opportunities for training and professional development.”

(Photo by Samantha Barnes)

The college’s program is designed to give DrPH students the skills they need to sit for the national board examination to become laboratory leaders. The COPH’s program currently has seven DrPH students enrolled in this program,

“Courses in the program were designed and implemented by professionals already working in laboratory leadership roles around the country,” Roberts said. “These professionals have donated their time and expertise as they recognize the importance of maintaining the public health laboratory capacity, as it has a great impact on the public’s health.”

To meet  the workforce deficit projected as more public health laboratory directors retire, the Association of Public Health Laboratories and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention convened a number of workforce improvement efforts.

“These efforts led to the development of competency guidelines for public health laboratory professionals intended to help ensure a capable, well-trained, and prepared laboratory workforce,” Roberts said.

Existing DrPH courses at the College of Public Health meet many of the competencies required for laboratory directors, Roberts said, and the remaining competencies are satisfied by courses designed specifically for this track.

“The USF courses cover laboratory leadership, management, theory and practice, collectively providing those crucial skills necessary for directors of our nation’s laboratories,” Roberts said. “We must teach our students to become mentors and role models and, luckily, we have the best in the country providing this guidance.”

Most of the students in the program possess biological science expertise.

“It is the additional skills required by laboratory leaders that they will need to master to be successful on the exam and in their future positions,” Roberts said.

Most of the COPH’s students enrolled in this program have tuition waivers from the State of California­­, which provides an Aspire grant to incentivize enrollment.

“I owe my own personal success to the public health laboratories, which provided me with the training necessary to complete my own education,” Roberts said. “I am humbled by the opportunity to give back to the system that has given so much to me.”

She said she’s seen firsthand how the program is benefiting her students.

“The students who I am mentoring are absolutely superstars and they strive to give 100 percent in their field,” Roberts said. “The individuals behind the courses and the creation of the program have spent their entire lives giving to the field of public health and this program is part of that legacy. I am honored to have worked with everyone who has contributed to this mission.”

Learn more about the COPH’s lab science and practice program by visiting the DrPH graduate admissions website.

Story by Anna Mayor, USF College of Public Health