My Life as a Pracademic

pracademic Allison Chamberlain

In this post, Dr. Allison Chamberlain shares her experiences “playing on both teams” as a pracademic. Dr. Chamberlain is a faculty member at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University and serves as an epidemiology consultant to the Fulton County Board of Health located in downtown Atlanta. At the time of this post, she was serving alongside her Fulton County colleagues in the health department’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) as Atlanta prepared to host Super Bowl LIII.

My work week goes like this: I spend Mondays at Emory, Tuesdays at the Fulton County Board of Health (FCBOH), Wednesdays at Emory, Thursday mornings at Emory and afternoons at FCBOH, and Fridays at FCBOH. Sometimes my weeks get tweaked (oh, like, say when the “big game” comes to town or when a big grant proposal is due), but by and large, that’s my routine. I have badges for both places, offices in both places, and favorite lunch spots in both places. But most importantly, I have colleagues in both places, students in both places, and research projects that straddle both.

In anticipation of Atlanta hosting the 2019 Super Bowl, Dr. Chamberlain made “preparedness for mass gatherings” the running theme for her Fall 2018 Public Health Preparedness course. In November 2018 she took her class on a tour of Mercedes-Benz stadium. Here her students learn from James Seagle, the stadium’s Public Safety Operations & Logistics Manager about what goes into keeping over 70,000 fans safe and healthy.

I am a full-time Research Assistant Professor in the Epidemiology Department at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health in Atlanta, GA. I am an infectious disease epidemiologist by training, with expertise in cluster randomized trial design, maternal vaccine promotion, and public health preparedness. I teach our school’s course on Public Health Preparedness, and I collaborate on a variety of grants and projects with other faculty. I lead a very full academic career, but in 2017, I felt like I wanted to do more – more for my school, more for my community, more for public health. I also had never worked in a state or local public health department and that always bugged me.

So through some networking and conversations with a variety of people – people ranging from practicing physicians to professional grant writers to my career mentors at Rollins to state health department leadership – I arrived at a unique opportunity: to be an epidemiology consultant with FCBOH – the local health department serving Fulton County, GA. I jumped at the chance.

After HR paperwork and on-boarding occurred, I turned towards “diving in.” But “diving in” at a local health department looks like this: Instead of standing in front of one pool that could use your help, you find yourself standing at the intersection of 5 different pools that could all use your expertise equally as much. That’s simultaneously very intimidating and very invigorating. It’s intimidating from the vantage point of “I am only here 50% of my time,” yet invigorating from a research perspective (“So many research questions, so much data!”). But in getting to know my colleagues down at Fulton, it became clear they didn’t want an “academic” in their midst. They wanted a helper. A smart teammate they could rely on to advance their programmatic goals. My research agenda or academic motivations were not things most cared too much about.

And in my experience, that’s the heart and soul of being a pracademic: helping first, academic agenda second. And in actuality, those two charges can go hand-in-hand. Coupling your own background and areas of expertise with the projects the health department leadership feels could benefit most from your assistance is a win-win from both perspectives. So what pool did I dive into? The HIV/STD pool.

Dr. Chamberlain and FCBOH colleague Udodirim Onwubiko with Emory student volunteer recruiters at the 2018 Atlanta Pride Festival.

In the year and a half I have been down at Fulton County, the majority of my efforts have been aimed at assisting with analyses of multiple years of HIV/STD data that the health department just has not had the time or consistent staff to be able to get a good handle on. I lead a study exploring risk factors for recurrent syphilis among Fulton County residents. I lead another study exploring correlates of HIV seroconversion among women seeking care at the Fulton County Board of Health. In Fall 2018, I assisted with the development and launch of the County’s first ever in-person survey at two major Atlanta Gay Pride events in which we recruited over 700 festival participants to take a survey assessing PrEP awareness and use among populations at risk for contracting HIV.  

All this sounds great, but what are the academic links? What are the academic benefits? Well first, the students. I have a PhD student assisting with the syphilis study. I have two MPH students working on the seroconversion among women study. I helped recruit 23 students from three local universities (18 from Emory) to serve as volunteer recruiters for our Pride event survey and trained them in survey recruitment and administration. I applied for and received a grant from Emory’s Center for AIDS Research to cover training and incentives costs for that survey, and I was able to embed research questions of interest to myself and another Emory colleague into that survey. To date, those preliminary data have been used for one grant proposal, 4 conference abstracts, and Fulton County’s new 5-year roadmap for HIV incidence reduction.

Balancing this work is a challenge. It is not easy. But my goodness is it fulfilling and worth it! Turning towards HIV was intimidating for me, but it was what was needed most for the health department, and it has opened up more beneficial academic doors than not. And the onus is on me to make sure I remain aware of those academic doors – to ensure that what I do invest my time in at the health department can simultaneously benefit either my academic self or my school. It has made me think more creatively about my own expertise and how to apply it to a new area (eg, who knew there were so many similarities between vaccine promotion and PrEP promotion?), and it has garnered me a reputation as the “pracademic professor” – the one to go to for practicum or thesis opportunities in local public health practice.

Because I have found myself loving this dual role, I have also found myself thinking a lot about how to keep it going. I want more people to have this experience. I want more students involved. How can I expand this type of opportunity for other faculty? How can this role be sustained over time? Can roles like this be alluring to future academic faculty recruits? To prospective students? How do other schools of public health support and sustain these types of collaborations? These are all important questions because, to me, pracademia is where it’s at.  

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