When Sami Miller and Kelly Broussard decided to head down to the border last summer, they didn’t expect to end up in the middle of the global swine flu pandemic.
As participants in the College of Natural Sciences’ Public Health Internship Program, they knew they’d be spending the summer at the Brownsville regional campus of the UT School of Public Health. They knew the internships were being fully funded by the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL). And they knew they’d be working, somehow, on public health at the Texas/Mexico border. The hope, for both of them, was that they’d get to work with an infectious disease.
“I was 15 when I realized I wanted to work for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC),” said Broussard, a microbiology major from Austin. “You can’t really know in high school what that means, of course, but I thought working for the CDC would be the coolest thing in the world.”
For Miller, also a microbiology major from Austin, it was a high school class in medical microbiology and pathophysiology that turned her on to infectious diseases.
“That class changed my life,” she said. “When we read the novel ‘Outbreak,’ which was about an outbreak of Ebola in the U.S., that was it for me. I’m not a risk taker. I don’t want to go bungee jumping or sky diving. But the diseases are so interesting, and they’re so different from each other, and have such different effects on the human body. You can study them your whole life and you’ll never be bored.”
An added bonus, for Miller and Broussard, was that in Brownsville they’d be working with Drs. Joseph McCormick and Susan Fisher-Hoch, who were among the world’s leading “disease detectives.” They’d done pioneering work in the study of, among other diseases, Ebola, Legionnaires’ Disease, Lassa fever, Crimean Congo Hemorrhagic Fever and AIDS. As investigators at the CDC, they’d been in charge of the Biosafety Level 4 facility — the so-called “hot zone.”
“If you’re a public health nerd, which I am, they’re really kind of famous,” Broussard said.
Broussard, when she’d signed up to do the internship, hadn’t been told what project she’d be working on. Miller had been told she’d be working on tuberculosis. Upon arrival, they were immediately called upon to join the all-hands-on-deck effort to help the United States, and the world, stay one step ahead of the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus (“swine flu,” as it was known to the public).
“We were in the middle of what ended up being a pandemic,” Miller said, “and Brownsville was the first sentinel site set up by the National Institutes of Health to track the infection on the ground. They had so many samples coming into the lab, and I think it was useful to have us there in the lab processing samples and running tests on them.”