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CDC internship affirms YSPH student’s commitment to public health research and policy

October 04, 2022
by Colin Poitras

Yale School of Public Health (YSPH) second-year student Steph Tan, MPH ’23, found a perfect match for her interest in health policy and research this summer working as an intern in the Washington, D.C. office of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While other YSPH students have worked at the CDC in Atlanta, Georgia as part of their required internships, Tan is believed to be one of the first YSPH students to secure a coveted internship with the CDC in Washington. The office serves as the headquarters of the agency’s legislative operations. She was one of only three students nationally chosen for the internship this year.

For two and a half months, Tan, who is pursuing a degree in health policy, served as a legislative affairs intern. She attended legislative hearings, briefed lawmakers on important issues, and prepared reports for CDC leaders and scientists, among other duties.

One of the highlights of the experience, Tan said, was helping prepare testimony for CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky prior to a Senate hearing on COVID-19. The preparation involved summarizing different senators’ positions on various health issues so that Walensky would be prepared, if called upon, to answer a specific question.

“It was so incredible to be part of that process,” Tan said. “I had an email exchange with Dr. Walensky after the hearing where she indicated she was really grateful, so that was a big moment for me.”

While Tan says she gained enormously valuable experience during her internship, this was not the first time she found herself immersed in the political process. A native of New Zealand, she was a frequent guest on media outlets in 2021 as the leader of a national movement against anti-Asian violence. Her efforts were featured in an article in the Wall Street Journal. She also served as a science correspondent for Radio New Zealand.

It was because of her science background that Tan connected with YSPH research scientist and fellow New Zealander Anne Wyllie, creator of the innovative SalivaDirect COVID testing protocol. As a research lead in Wyllie’s SalivaDirect lab, Tan served as the lead author of a 2021 research paper validating saliva testing as a gold standard for COVID-19 detection. Together, she and Wyllie were able to convince New Zealand authorities of the merits of saliva testing for COVID-19 surveillance at a time when officials were hesitant to adopt the procedure over the more widely used nasopharyngeal swabs. More recently, Tan served as the lead author of a second paper — published October 4 in the World Health Organization Bulletin — regarding the implementation of saliva testing in low- and middle-income countries.

Tan believes both her New Zealand political experience and participation as a technical expert on a U.S. government panel evaluating COVID-19 testing in K-12 schools, were instrumental in helping her secure her CDC internship.

During her time with the CDC, Tan said she learned a lot about the depth and breadth of the agency’s responsibilities, which range from providing guidance for COVID-19 and monkeypox to working to reduce firearm violence and regulating the importation of dogs from other countries.

But it was the CDC’s scientific research efforts that intrigued her most. The internship placed her firmly at the intersection of scientific innovation and implementation. Part of her responsibilities included reporting back to CDC scientists when Congressional members raised questions about proposed interventions.

Internships are absolutely crucial to entering the workforce and public health. They help you really see the reality of how public health interventions are implemented.

Steph Tan

“At the end of the day, the CDC produces a lot of great scientific interventions but many of them rely on Congressional approval and funding,” Tan said. “I would have conversations with scientists in an attempt to find a way to have their interventions come to fruition.”

Also, as part of her duties, Tan attended meetings with staff from lawmakers’ offices to address concerns about proposed interventions and clarify any misinformation.

Dealing with misinformation was a major concern for Tan during her internship. But one important lesson she learned was not to be distracted by small flare-ups of disinformation that she feared could derail important public health campaigns.

“I’ve learned not to get caught up in the drama of all of it and to just focus on communicating the truth and letting the truth prevail,” Tan said.

Tan said her internship affirmed her love for civil service and public health policy. While she would like to secure full-time employment with the CDC – perhaps conducting research and developing interventions to counter firearm violence – her New Zealand citizenship could be a barrier to those aspirations. For now, she said, she is weighing her options and considering extending her career in academia until she qualifies for U.S. citizenship and can secure a government job, especially as her interests in health, environmental, and animal law have also grown tremendously throughout her time at Yale.

“I’ve always tried to be value and mission-focused,” Tan said. “So, if I’m focused on firearm violence prevention, for example, I’ll always keep that to my core whether that involves government service or working in the private sector.”

While Tan has learned a lot during her time at YSPH, she said the value of the internship experience cannot be understated.

“I feel like internships are absolutely crucial to entering the workforce and public health,” she said. “They help you really see the reality of how public health interventions are implemented.

Submitted by Sabrina Lacerda Naia dos Santos on October 04, 2022