Biodefense Alumna Lands Prestigious Presidential Management Fellowship

A young woman with brown hair poses in front of a federal building and its sign in Washington, D.C.
Aurelia Berisha: ‘PMF is an amazing opportunity to get your foot in the door, especially for a biodefense student.’

Aurelia Berisha has always been interested in public service to have an opportunity to make a positive difference in the community and other people’s lives. Now, she has that opportunity in her new role as a Program and Management Analyst at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) through the highly competitive Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF) program.

Berisha, a native of Chesapeake, Virginia, graduated from George Mason University in 2017 with her bachelor of science degree in biology and worked for a few years as a medical technologist. After the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Berisha became interested in strengthening biosafety and biosecurity in the U.S. and enrolled in the Schar School of Policy and Government’s highly ranked Master of Biodefense program, from which she graduated in 2021. While taking classes at Mason Square, Berisha heard about the PMF Program through several professors, including biodefense adjunct professors Ashley Grant and Andrew Kilianski, who encouraged her to apply.

The PMF program is the federal government’s flagship leadership development program for advanced degree holders with a mission of recruiting and developing a cohort of future government leaders drawn from all segments of society. Fellows take part in training and development opportunities, including a leadership development program which focuses on identifying key values for public servants and providing fellows with critical leadership competencies.

“I will participate in self-assessments, intensive small-group discussions, and team challenges,” Berisha said. Additionally, fellows can choose to experience another agency during their term. “The PMF program also provides rotational opportunities within the home agency or other federal agencies that I can apply for to gain a broader scope of the federal government,” she said.   

Fellows serve for two years in the agency or agencies of their choice with salary and benefits; many find full-time employment following their fellowships.

The detailed application process alone eliminates many would-be PMF finalists. In 2022, 250 applicants were selected out of 3,000 applications that were submitted. Of the 250, only 120 made it as fellows.

Through the PMF program, Berisha was placed in her current role at USDA in January. Even after only four months, Berisha is already grateful for the opportunities she has had to learn and grow in her new position.

“We receive a lot of training opportunities [through PMF] and I’ve been able to not only gain a lot of knowledge on certain topics, but also leverage my knowledge from the biodefense program, which I’m very grateful for,” she said. “PMF is an amazing opportunity to get your foot in the door, especially for a biodefense student.”

The Schar School Career Services team offers several resources to students interested in applying for the PMF Program, including information sessions for both current students and alumni. Berisha said she is grateful for easy access to these resources through the Schar School during her application process, as well as the helpful advice she received from professors who she credits for making her a stronger candidate. Having someone flag deadlines was also helpful.

After completion of the PMF two-year term, Berisha would like to continue working in the field of biodefense, and said she ultimately aspires to pursue a career in biosecurity and biorisk management, which would combine her experience working in labs with the knowledge she has gained from the Schar School and PMF program.