Learning from Owls on the Front Line

Learning from Owls on the Front Line

Andrea Augustine ’21 and Priscilla Li ’20

When Andrea Augustine ’21 and Priscilla Li ’20 applied for a spring break externship at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), they looked forward to touring the campus in Atlanta, visiting the CDC museum and meeting public health officials, including their externship host, Ellen Wan ’01, M.P.H, the CDC’s acting associate deputy director for non-infectious diseases.

With COVID-19 spreading quickly across the world, though, things did not go exactly as planned.

“It was changed to a virtual externship a few days before the externship began,” Priscilla explained. “Public schools were closing down and CDC employees were juggling taking care of their children while being on the front line of the public health response to COVID-19.”

The new digital externship experience included phone interviews and virtual meet-and-greets with a range of CDC officials, including Wan and another Rice alumna, Susannah McKay ’00, Ph.D., M.P.H, a molecular epidemiologist and former Epidemic Intelligence Service officer. Over their two-day experience, Andrea and Priscilla were able to ask pressing questions about COVID-19 to the professionals who were leading the nationwide response to the disease.

“Everyone we talked to was affected by COVID-19,” Andrea said. “One professional talked about how the labs are adapting to receiving so many samples, while a communications team member spoke about the efforts to promote social distancing to the public.”

Although the two students were not able to visit the CDC campus, both found the externship rewarding and inspiring. For Priscilla, learning about the baseline of excellence and collaboration in the CDC’s workplace culture affirmed her career goal to be a physician who works closely on public health initiatives.

For Andrea, also an aspiring doctor, meeting with Wan and McKay during the externship came at a pivotal moment in her future planning. While weighing offers for masters programs in public health, her externship experience helped identify the various paths taken by current CDC professionals. This encouraged her to pursue a public health degree before medical school.

Both Andrea and Priscilla recognize the incredible impact of connecting with Rice alums, especially in this difficult time. “Ellen put in so much time asking about our interests and scheduling meetings with her team members based on our needs,” Andrea says. “Even in this busy time, she contributed so much to my Rice experience.”

Priscilla also took away a valuable lesson from the externship: “As a senior, it was nice to hear where alums found themselves after Rice. We do not have to have our lives figured out, and we should allow ourselves the flexibility to adjust and listen to what makes us eager to engage and change something for the better.”

If you are interested in hosting a Rice student for an externship or internship, please visit our volunteer opportunities page to read more and sign-up.