The Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Texas A&M University has played a major role in creating a pipeline for professionals who will spearhead future public health efforts against vectors like mosquitoes and ticks and the disease-causing pathogens they carry.

Two people, a woman sitting and a man standing, work on tick samples in an entomology lab.
Adela Oliva Chavez, Ph.D., (left) working on tick samples with a student in an entomology lab. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Laura McKenzie)

Over the past five years, Texas A&M’s Department of Entomology has helped the Western Gulf Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Diseases to build an interdisciplinary curriculum designed to prepare the next generation of entomologists in vector biology and vector-borne disease response.

Phillip Kaufman, Ph.D., head of the Department of Entomology, said the collaborative regional center and its partners have enhanced the department’s ability to prepare students and develop professionals who will lead evolving public health efforts against vector-borne diseases.

The Zika outbreak that hit the U.S. in 2016 spurred the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, to create a network of five regional centers, including the Western Gulf Center. The five centers of excellence represent a $50 million, five-year national grant program investment. The center’s focus is on applied research, extension and education efforts to buttress the proactive and reactive public health capabilities against vectors and the associated pathogens.

Kaufman said he is proud of the department’s ability to create a curriculum for a new certificate program. The certificate combines existing coursework from various disciplines to provide competence and expertise for the needed practitioners and professionals.

“Producing an entomology certificate that moves students toward a better understanding or specialization in the public health aspects of the field is one of the items the CDC wanted when creating the center,” Kaufman said. “These students will make a positive impact in the collective effort to meet CDC goals, whether they end up working in the public or private sector or academia.”

Building a new curriculum to combat vectors, vector-borne diseases

The curriculum development for the program at the Department of Entomology was led by Craig Coates, Ph.D., instructional professor and associate department head for academic programs, and Pete Teel, Ph.D., former associate head and professor emeritus.

Coates said a new form of curriculum was designed to add undergraduate and graduate certificate programs within the department that would combine skills and knowledge from the spectrum of perspectives needed for public health officials’ management of, monitoring for and response to vector-borne outbreaks.

Now, undergraduates have access to a 15 credit-hour undergraduate certificate in public health entomology. Graduate students can complete a 12 credit-hour vector biology and vector-borne disease response in human and animal systems certificate.

Both certificate programs include medical and veterinary entomology, various entomology and biosciences classes like insect toxicology and epidemiology and combine them with multiple foundational public health courses. The graduate certificate also utilizes courses focused on applied science, data analysis, infectious diseases in the developing world, as well as courses that cover the risks, challenges and solutions in relation to economic and societal impacts.

Beyond the university-level education, the department is also creating online courses for people who want to learn more about vectors and vector-borne diseases. Coates said online learning modules will provide direct, free public access to education and training focused on proactive and reactive measures to combat vectors. 

Collaborative internships provide experience

Undergraduate internships were designed to provide experiential learning and expose students to concepts and the work in the field, Coates said.

The Western Gulf Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Diseases is a wide collaboration, which creates opportunities for students at many academic institutions. The center is based at the University of Texas Medical Branch, UTMB, and partners with the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, Texas A&M AgriLife Research, and more than a dozen other universities and public health agencies in the region. 

Interns attending universities in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and New Mexico have collaborated with UTMB, AgriLife Research and the Department of Entomology, regional and state agencies like the Texas Department of State Health Services, and county vector programs for experiential outreach, education and research opportunities.

Several of the interns have already gained experiences with the center that led them to train for careers in public health entomology.

“The goal was to create new professionals in public health who are exposed to multiple disciplines and perspectives, providing a One Health approach to the links between these vectors and humans, animals and the environment,” Coates said. “That interdisciplinary knowledge is incredibly valuable for the management and coordination of public health agencies and programs designed to prevent and respond to outbreaks.”

The increase of vector threats to public health

Teel said the center’s focus on vector-borne diseases is increasingly vital for ensuring future public health. Outbreaks of West Nile and Zika made headlines, but there have been many new pathogens discovered in native vectors like ticks since the 1990s.

The deer tick, or blacklegged tick, transmits the Lyme disease bacterium
The Lyme disease bacterium is spread through the bite of infected deer ticks, or blacklegged ticks. (Photo courtesy of CDC)

Exposure to these pathogens is becoming more prevalent as suburban sprawl and outdoor activity puts people in closer proximity to vectors.

“We humans have been responsible for moving many of these vectors around in our conveyances – ships, airplanes, you name it – over the last several hundred years,” he said. “So, there is a constant shifting and changing of these dynamics, and that puts additional demand on the way we teach and apply scientific research to produce professionals who can evolve within the field.”

These growing public health risks place a high priority on creating professionals who understand outbreak prevention and who can monitor vector populations and forecast higher-risk environmental conditions, Teel said. But these professionals also need to respond to outbreaks effectively, in concert with other experts, while conveying science-based updates to the public.  

The research conducted by AgriLife Research and the outreach provided by AgriLife Extension combined with the education pipeline supported by the Department of Entomology work together to meet that mission, Teel said. Furthermore, the Western Gulf Center’s support network is important for the undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students entering the field.

“The center has created the foundation for this pipeline that will produce the future practitioners and professionals we need to face emerging threats through both proactive and reactive public health initiatives,” Teel said. “Relevant interdisciplinary coursework and experiential learning opportunities are not only essential to future public health needs, but also for the students who might see an internship or employment opportunity.”

Moving toward the public health goal

Teel and Coates said the collaborative nature of the center helps all stakeholders, from federal, state and local health agencies, to universities, to students and the public.

Cooperation and shared perspectives ultimately improve public health outcomes, the institutions’ ability to educate and students’ resumes, transcripts and job readiness.

“The collaborations between institutions are a really important facet of what the center does,” Teel said. “Everything circles back around to the mission – protecting public health from vector-borne disease, and the center keeps everyone moving toward that goal.”  

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