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Participating in the Cougar Health Research Academy graduation were, from left, Houston Health Department's John Fleming, chief, Bureau of Public Health Preparedness, Lloyd Sams, public health investigator, and Stephen L. Williams, director; UHCOP's Rajender Aparasu, professor and department chair; CHRA students Francisco Espinoza, Britney Omietimi, Alexandra Ramirez, Adilenne Aguilar, Kyle May, Tatyana Sokhina, Srijith Kambala, and Nashita Kazim; UH's Anne Dayton, CITE program director; CHRA student Atticus Emig; UHCOP's James Essien, professor and director of the Institute of Community Health; Houston Health Department's Kirstin Short, chief, Bureau of Epidemiology, and Osaro Mgbere, CHRA program coordinator.

Highlighting Public Health

Diverse Career Opportunities, Academic Preparation Showcased in Cougar Health Research Academy 

Sept. 3 — In a recent graduation ceremony, participants and organizers of the Cougar Health Research Academy (CHRA) celebrated the success of the inaugural four-week program aimed at exposing University of Houston undergraduate students to the diverse and rewarding field of public health.

The virtual program, which was funded by a Cougar Initiative To Engage (CITE) program grant from the UH Office of the Provost, was organized by UH College of Pharmacy's Institute of Community Health in partnership with the Houston Health Department.

The necessity of creating programs such as the CHRA stems from the fact that approximately 45-50% of public health professionals in the field today will be eligible for retirement within the next five years. The organizers also emphasized how both the COVID-19 pandemic and both the frequency and severity of environmental disasters, from hurricanes and floods to wildfires and drought, underscore the critical need to cultivate and expand the public health workforce.

"Although much of public health typically occurs behind the scenes, the extraordinary lifesaving value of this workforce is front and center for the world to see during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Stephen L. Williams, director of the Houston Health Department. "I am proud of the accomplishments of the first class of the Cougar Health Research Academy and look forward to the students pursuing a career in public health."

The program consisted of didactic presentations from UHCOP faculty members in such areas as epidemiology and biostatistics; research designs; communication practice and strategies, such as motivational interviewing; and ethical issues in health research.

Through group activities, observations and tutorials, participants also interacted with dozens of professionals from the Houston Health Department on topics ranging from disease prevention, control and reporting to preparedness and disaster management. The program provided insights not only on the respective responsibilities of HHD personnel, but also how the different areas collaborate as a team both internally and in coordination with other local, state and federal entities.

"The Cougar Health Research Academy was a career-changing experience that taught me about the fulfilment in working for public health authorities," said CHRA participant Francisco Espinoza. "Besides introducing me into new careers paths, the academy allowed me to learn more about disease surveillance, data security and confidentiality, laboratory procedures, and infectious diseases. The academy introduced me to wonderful and awesome professionals that are working in the Houston Health Department and mentors that will guide me in my future endeavors."

Another key goal of the program was to elucidate the diversity of not only specific career tracks that fall under the "public health" umbrella, but also the academic and experiential backgrounds of its practitioners. Nearly 300 applications were received for the program's 12 openings, with the selected participants coming from such diverse degree programs as education, biology, and psychology.

"The Cougar Health Research Academy was well received by the undergraduate students as shown by the high volume of applications received for a limited number of positions," said E. James Essien, DrPH, M.D., UHCOP professor of pharmaceutical health outcomes and policy and director of the Institute of Community Health. "I believe that this may be a reflection of the overwhelming interest in public health and hope that the program has helped to lay a strong foundation for the trainees to build upon.”

Organizers are exploring funding opportunities that would allow the CHRA to operate on an annual basis and contribute to the training of future generations of public health practitioners.