by Kim Krisberg
Amanda DeSimpelare was always interested in science, but she was wary of what a career in the field would be like. She pictured herself being tucked away in a laboratory all day. It wasn’t too appealing.
Then, in the summer of 2010, she discovered public health.
“When I pictured science before, I pictured it happening in a lab somewhere,” said the 18-year-old college freshman. “But I’d rather be out talking with people and working directly with the public. Then I came to camp and realized that you can connect science and data collection while working directly with people.”
The camp is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Disease Detective Camp, a weeklong day camp that exposes high school juniors and seniors to the field of public health. Since it began in 2005, the summer camp has welcomed hundreds of young people for an immersive experience into the oft-invisible world of public health. For DeSimpelare, who first attended the CDC summer camp in 2010 and returned a year later to serve as a counselor, the experience was a game-changer. (Also, she says she washes her hands more often now, too.)
“I wouldn’t have even known about the different career options in public health if I hadn’t gone…it completely changed my path,” said DeSimpelare, who is now pursuing a career in public health at Northern Michigan University. “I didn’t really know anything about public health (before camp); I’d hardly even heard about CDC, what it did and how it helped the country.”
Hearing “I had no idea that public health does that!” is a pretty common exclamation at CDC’s Disease Detective Camp, said Trudi Ellerman, who coordinates the camp and serves as educational director at the David J. Sencer CDC Museum. The camp is an official program of the museum, the mission of which is to educate visitors on the value of prevention-based public health.
“The key to getting students’ attention is to make the experience a meaningful one,” Ellerman told me. “At this age, I don’t think the students are necessarily drawn to the idea of being healthy. What’s driving them is the desire to help…and this is showing them how to make a career out of making a difference.”
Welcome to camp
Disease Detective Camp starts off with a mock disease outbreak — one year it was salmonella, other years it was mumps or Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Campers set off in teams to interview 45 mock patients (all CDC volunteers), collect the information, form a hypothesis and use the data to help pinpoint a potential exposure. The activity, Ellerman said, “helps them understand that in public health, there’s an actual systematic approach to analyzing data.” She added happily: “I’m always so impressed. These kids are so smart and motivated.”
Campers also take part in a mock news conference about the mock outbreak and find out just “how challenging it is to explain a scientific idea to the population so they’ll understand it and use it,” Ellerman said. Other camp activities include a global health fair, a tour through CDC labs and its emergency operations center, and meeting with experts in adolescent and school-based health.
One of camp’s most popular events is a session on public health law — “the kids just don’t expect to hear about law here,” Ellerman noted. During the session, campers take on a scenario like this: an infected person is on an airplane and he’s an important person, like a rock star. How should CDC respond? Should it have the authority to stop the plane?
“What’s so important to high school students is personal rights…and it’s really interesting to see them think about where do we start to draw the line,” Ellerman said. “Kids start off by saying ‘no, we want what we want’…but then they start weighing the rights of individuals against the collective health.”
CDC offers two free camp sessions every summer — one week in June and another in July. Because of the hands-on nature of the camp and the opportunity campers get to explore CDC facilities, admissions are limited and determined by an application process. In recent years, Ellerman said, about half of campers come from around the Atlanta area and about half come from out of state and stay with friends or family. This coming summer, CDC will be launching it first three-day Junior Disease Detective Camp for kids entering the seventh and eighth grades. Ellerman added that a toolkit is in the works aimed at helping local health departments or universities replicate a similar program in their communities.
“Here, they come and see how everything relates to their lives and how they can make an impact on a big group of people,” she said. “We want them to know how important public health is in keeping them safe and healthy in ways they don’t even know.”
Across the country in Colorado, a similar effort is gaining momentum. Last July marked the kick-off of the Public Health Academy, a two-week program at the Colorado School of Public Health designed for high school students from traditionally under-represented groups in the health professions. The academy was Fayette Augillard’s idea and sprang out of her work on health disparities. And with help from school faculty, staff, students and local public health professionals, the academy is now readying for its second run.
“The mission is to enable students of color to explore, pursue and advance in public health professions to create a more diverse public health work force better able to serve Colorado and the Rocky Mountain region,” said Augillard, program coordinator at the Colorado School of Public Health. “The research shows that it’s better to get students exposed to the options they have at a young age.”
While the academy is structured like school — with sessions in the morning and afternoon and lunch in between — it’s nothing like sitting in a classroom. In 2011, students took a trip to the local DeLaney Community Farm to learn about food supply issues; conducted a mock foodborne illness outbreak investigation; traveled to the state Capitol to meet their representative in the Colorado General Assembly and learn about advocacy; took a trip to a construction site to learn about occupational health and safety; and visited the state health department to see how public health responds to disasters. For this summer’s academy, students will get a lesson in community engagement and policy as well — “let’s take it from the start and bring it to the conclusion with policy,” Augillard told me. The academy will open its doors to undergrad students this summer as well.
“We want to make public health as real for them as possible,” she said.
Making public health real was what did it for Max Sims, a 19-year-old college student at the University of Rochester who attended CDC’s Disease Detective Camp in 2010 and is now considering a career in public health. At camp, Sims got to meet folks from all over CDC, from those who serve as the first response to disease outbreaks to workers who travel India administering polio vaccines. It was cool, he said, to talk with the “guys who were living it, as opposed to reading it out of a book.” In fact, the young college student already sounds like a seasoned public health professional.
“I find it interesting that public health isn’t as glorified as professional medicine even though it has the potential to save people in ways that professional medicine just won’t have the opportunity to,” he said.
To learn more about CDC ‘s Disease Detective Camp, visit www.cdc.gov/museum/camp/detective.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for almost a decade.