Not many people know that pond scum can be a threatening public health issue. I certainly didn't during the last semester of my MPH program when my supervisor encouraged me to apply for the CDC/CSTE Applied Epidemiology Fellowship. At first I was unsure about how I’d fit into the fellowship categories, but Class XI—which was set to start the summer I graduated—hosted a pilot group of Environmental Health – Waterborne Diseases fellows, primarily focused on harmful algal blooms (HABs) and other recreational water issues. This aligned perfectly with my previous experience and interests, although I knew very little about HABs myself. Compared to other more classical public health issues, HABs have only recently been identified as health hazards, and not many states have dedicated programs to track their associated illnesses. While working in my fellowship with the Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH), I have learned that new and crosscutting issues, such as HABs, require collaboration from multiple agencies with different types of expertise.
Working at ISDH, I’ve been integrated into day-to-day activities and allowed to develop projects based on the state’s needs. Creating and distributing HAB information for the general public was identified as a need, so I developed materials for the general public, healthcare providers, and veterinarians. My state mentors, Jen Brown and Shawn Richards, help me keep a pulse on the state’s needs to create relevant and timely materials.
I've also been able to work with different state agencies to learn about HABs for different purposes. For instance, I donned fashionable waders to help the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) take samples of lake water for routine HAB sampling. We then took the samples to the IDEM lab where I shadowed the laboratory workers as they determined certain risk level indicators, such as cell count and toxins present in the samples. Back at ISDH, I reported the results to the geographic information systems team to produce an interactive map, showing the state’s test results with color warning symbols coordinated with risk level. With real-time data, public health outreach materials, and HAB reporting forms on ISDH’s webpage, we developed the site into a one-stop shop for HAB information. By having a hands-on role in the process—from collecting samples to posting results online—I was able to learn about HABs beyond what a literature review could provide.
Our class has four Waterborne Diseases fellows placed in Indiana, Ohio, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Being a part of the pilot Waterborne group, we rely heavily on each other, state mentors, and partners at the CDC Waterborne Disease Prevention Branch to provide guidance and work through issues as they arise. We have also had the unique opportunity to collaborate with other state and federal stakeholders to mold the program while meeting the standard CSTE fellowship competencies. In addition, Class XII expanded the Waterborne cohort by adding three new waterborne fellows in Illinois, Michigan, and New York. Together, our work helps expand and promote surveillance in order to capture more HAB data in future years. Who knew that pond scum could be responsible for such an interesting and productive learning experience?