When I started Meet a Scientist Monday, I knew there was one person we just had to include because her work was so extremely interesting. Today we hear from Dr. Minda Weldon, who is an epidemiologist.
1. What is an epidemiologist?
Most people know that epidemiologists study outbreaks of infectious diseases (there are lots of epidemiologists scrambling to study swine flu right now!), but they do a lot more, too. Epidemiologists study cancer, birth defects, exposure to possible environmental toxins, injuries, food poisoning and much more. Some epidemiologists specialize in doing studies to see if new medicines really work. Most hospitals employ an epidemiologist to make sure that infections are not accidentally spread among patients. Lots of epidemiologists are also trained as medical doctors, veterinarians, nurses, and dentists. While a medical doctor’s patient is one person, an epidemiologist’s “patient” is a whole population. Sometimes it is really hard to tell what has made someone sick, so epidemiologists collect information from lots and lots of people (sometimes thousands and thousands) to get answers.
2. How did you decide to become an epidemiologist?
I first became interested in epidemiology when I was in high school. When I was sixteen years old, I had the wonderful opportunity to volunteer with a public health and youth development organization called Amigos de las Americas. I lived in a rural village in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico, and my job was to teach the locals why it was it was important to use and build latrines, and to teach mothers how to care for people suffering from diarrhea. Most people in the United States get diarrhea once in a while and consider it uncomfortable and inconvenient. Where I worked in Mexico, diarrhea was frequent and could be life threatening, especially for babies and young children. Flies landed on animal and human “droppings” and then landed on food, transmitting diseases. Clean water was not available for cooking or hand washing. It was pretty easy to figure out how diseases were being spread. In my first week in the village, my host family’s malnourished baby came very, very close to dying as a consequence of severe diarrhea and dehydration.
Later, when I was nineteen, I worked with the same organization on a rabies eradication program in Ecuador. I worked with Ecuadorian veterinarians and doctors. I still remember the map with red-topped pins noting each reported case of rabies. I saw how the epidemiologists studied the spread of the disease and determined which areas needed the vaccine the most. Because of this careful study and planning the number of cases of rabies (in humans and animals) plummeted. I decided I wanted to be an epidemiologist.
3. How did you become an epidemiologist?
I received a PhD in epidemiology of the University of California at Davis. After I finished my bachelor’s degree (in four years), it took me almost four more years to get my PhD. I studied lots of different things including biology, chemistry, and lots of statistics. I also worked closely with a professor to do a research study about how different diseases affect the ability of older people to live independently.
4. What was your most exciting job?
After I got my PhD, I spent two years as an Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) officer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was a very exciting job! EIS officers investigate disease outbreaks all over the world. EIS officers were some of the first scientists to investigate HIV and ebola and toxic shock syndrome.
One of my investigations was of an unusual case of mercury poisoning. It turned out that a popular Mexican beauty cream contained high levels of mercury. People loved the cream because it got rid of their acne (mercury can be a good antibacterial) but they didn’t know that it was also poisoning them! Some of the people who used the cream had strange health problems but they had no idea that the problems were being caused by a beauty cream. After the investigation, the company stopped making the cream.
5. What did you do on a day-to-day basis?
As an epidemiologist, I spent a lot of time at the computer analyzing data and then writing reports and medical journal articles. I also interviewed people and collected information on surveys. Sometimes I had to draw blood. I toured a greenhouse full of poinsettias to try to figure out how workers had been sickened by a pesticide. I went to waste water treatment facilities to get a feel for how much exposure workers had to untreated sewage (a lot!) so that I could design a study to see if workers would benefit from a new vaccine. You see, I was always doing something new.
Wow, Dr. Weldon’s job sounds difficult, but also very rewarding. An epidemiologist saves people’s lives. After reading her answers, are you interested in becoming an epidemiologist? If so, you will need to work hard on math and science.
Resources for more information, provided by Dr. Weldon:
This link has various information about epidemiology, much of which is geared to teachers.
This link has some fun games about epidemiology and germs
A Science Friday (National Public Radio) Kids’ Connection about John Snow, the father of epidemiology
A link to the organization I volunteered with when I was in high school and college