Student Creates Practicum at White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

Where they will conduct their practicum project to gain real-world public health work experience is a key decision that MPH students at the Milken Institute School of Public Health must make. The Department of Environmental and Occupational Health (EOH) maintains active connections with dozens of professionals at top agencies and organizations within the federal government, international health, and nonprofits who serve as site preceptors for our students. Students are also welcome to find their own opportunities, as Pei-Ying Chang Kobres did at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

Kobres met Jean-Paul Chretien, MD, PhD, the person who ultimately served as her site preceptor, by attending an event at GW’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences where he spoke soon after she began her studies in January 2016. “I knew I wanted to focus on biodefense. Dr. Chretien is a senior biological threat defense policy advisor at OSTP, work that places him at the intersection between national security, public health, and policy. My interests in infectious disease and preventative medicine aligned with his,” says Kobres, who is now an alumna of the department’s Environmental Health Science and Policy program and received the EOH Chair’s Award for her outstanding accomplishments at commencement this May.

In part because she began planning for her practicum nearly a year in advance, Kobres successfully persuaded Dr. Chretien and Peter LaPuma, PhD, PE, CIH, who directs practica for students in the EOH department’s Environmental Health Science and Policy program, to work together to set up the internship for her.

Kobres’ practicum in OSTP’s National Security and International Affairs Division began in January 2017. She was invited to attend the unclassified portions of the meetings held by her division, and she says that “a lot of the most interesting work I did involved things I can’t really talk about.” But she is at liberty to discuss the literature review she conducted of publications on the response to the Zika virus that set off a global health crisis in 2015 and 2016 and left thousands of babies with serious birth defects. In fact, she is continuing to work on getting that review published, which is no easy task in light of the kinds of hurdles her coauthors at the departments of Homeland Security, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institutes of Health must cross to obtain permission for publishing their work.

All EOH practica must last at least 120 hours, but Kobres’ stay at OSTP was extended after she completed that requirement. She ended up working there three full days a week for six months. “The most rewarding part of my internship,” she says, “was to see the progress being made in science and technology at the highest level of government and work with some of the most intelligent people I have ever met.” An extra bonus was that people in OSTP’s Environment and Energy “treated me as one of their own interns because I was studying environmental and occupational health in GW’s MPH program.”

Kobres’ stint at OSTP took place during a transitional period. She says that many of the people she worked with have either transitioned back to their home agency or into the private sector. However, she found all of the people she worked with at OSTP to be very helpful and approachable, whether they were outgoing or incoming. “I am confident that any MPH students interested in working at OSTP in the future will have little trouble finding someone there who is willing to talk to them,” she says.

Preparation and Practical Steps for a Top Notch Practica

Advance planning helps in most competitive undertakings, and GW practica are no exception. Kobres started the planning process that led to her landing the practicum of her dreams soon after she began her studies at GW and nearly a year before she began at the OSTP. That was in the winter of 2016, when Kobres was still a student in the school’s Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics.

Kobres credits taking PubH6004, the school’s introduction to Environmental and Occupational Health, taught by Drs. LaPuma and George Gray, PhD, with initially sparking her interest in environmental health. “I was able to meet and speak with experts on the broad range of topics we covered in PubH6004, and as a result, I got invited to some very interesting meetings,” she says. By the summer of 2016, Kobres had transferred into the EOH department. She officially applied to OSTP for her internship in Fall ’16.

The classes that helped Kobres take full advantage of her practicum include Dr. Gray’s Toxicology class, PubH6123. “He gave me my first glimpse into how scientific research could be used for policymaking. His lectures on risk perception and communication have been very valuable lessons for me in both policy and the real world. My social science background was not very strong coming into GW, but with Dr. Gray’s classes I’ve come to embrace this topic and hope to continue using it as a doctor,” says Kobres, who plans to attend medical school.

The task of conducting the Zika literature review that Kobres did at OSTP made her appreciate everything she learned in PubH6249, Stat Packages/Data Management and Data Analysis. She wishes that she had taken PubH6122, Environmental Policy, Politics, and Programs, taught by David Michaels, PhD, MPH before her OSTP internship. “Everything I learned in that class was applicable to my internship and enhanced my knowledge and understanding of health policy,” she says. 

Having a coffee with an EOH alumnus who was at the time working for the United States Global Change Research Program, Mark Shimamoto, also helped Kobres prepare for her practicum. “Mark told me about his experiences working on environmental health in the federal government, and my conversations with him helped me think about the sort of things I wanted to talk about in my cover letter, and during the interview.”

Kobres also recognizes the value of what she learned from working for Lance Price, PhD, who directs the EOH department’s Antibiotic Resistance Action Center in addition to serving as a professor in the department. She assisted in his laboratory, which uses cutting-edge molecular approaches to trace the origins of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and develop strategies to block their transmission, for two years—including the period when she also worked for OSTP.

Advice to Future Students

Kobres recommends that all incoming EOH MPH students consider becoming departmental liaisons to the school’s Student Affairs Advisory Board. “It is a really good position to take on to become involved at GW and get to know people from all the departments. I loved it because I am so proud of our department and felt lucky to represent it,” she says.

She also points out that students consider taking classes through the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area if they are interested in topics that aren’t covered in GW’s course offerings. “GW didn’t have biodefense classes so I went to Georgetown to take a class on biological threat agents and emerging infectious diseases and got elective credit for it. I actually ended up connecting with speakers from that class later during my OSTP internship, and I will be starting a post baccalaureate program there this year,” she says.

Kobres can’t say enough good things about the other MPH students in her cohort, which just graduated: “We were each other’s support system, and interacting with our group taught me the value of teamwork in school and in life. I was not the only one with an amazing internship—many of my classmates also had outstanding practica! Their comments about their experiences contributed our class discussions, which is just one of the reasons that my last two years at GW were so incredible.”