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Alum Spotlight: Elizabeth White '09
Public health as an applied science is animated by a commitment to service. The former cannot exist without the latter. “Scientists who serve” could be an apt motto for these individuals, one of whom is Elizabeth (Lizzie) White ’09. Currently in the first of a two-year fellowship at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), White is an Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer. Her path to epidemiology and her passion for service came together throughout her educational experiences.

“I’ve always loved science, but I knew I didn’t want to do bench science,” reflected White. “I wasn’t particularly interested in medical school. Years before the pandemic I realized that epidemiology and public health would be my path.”

White spent time in Central America while in college at Washington University in St. Louis. “I majored in biology and minored in public health. The service I engaged in while in Honduras helped convince me that I wanted to go into public health as a career,” said White. “I volunteered with a sustainable development organization. We helped build public health infrastructure in families' homes (cement floors, eco-friendly stoves, latrines, and wash stations) and provided health education for school aged children. My experiences in Honduras were my first exposure to global health work, and the most important lesson I carry with me to this day is the importance of partnerships.”

As if putting an exclamation point on the discernment process that goes into finding a career, White spent her first year after college in Jacksonville, Fla. volunteering with AmeriCorps. She worked at a YMCA doing community outreach and health education, serving mostly senior citizens. In Honduras and in AmeriCorps, White learned the value of collaboration. “It's essential to value local knowledge and ensure that community members are involved in all stages of any program or research project,” explained White.

In March 2020, White approached the conclusion of her PhD program at Yale University School of Medicine, where she studied the Epidemiology of Microbial diseases. When the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly prohibited in-person learning, she had mostly entered the independent research phase of her studies.

“On one hand, I was lucky in the sense that I had passed all of the academic requirements that remote learning hindered,” she said. “However it was also extremely difficult, because my research depended on my return to Uganda, and that important trip was delayed for almost two years."

Drawn to the front lines of applied science, White is comfortable in the “weeds” of a public health situation, motivated by a desire to help scale best practices in order to have a bigger impact on society. “The subject of my dissertation was tuberculosis (TB) in Uganda and how patient and health system traits affect the quality of TB care,” explained White.

Extraordinarily data-driven, White quantified the impact of interventions on patient outcomes, analyzed and evaluated data systems in order to improve them. “I loved working in Uganda,” she said. “When I was finally able to return for my third trip in 2021, I partnered with Ugandan social scientists there, and we visited clinics in the Kampala area, meeting with their directors and staff. We learned so much about how they managed their data and where the challenges were in their processes,” recalled White.

White stayed in Uganda for two months working on her dissertation. She also took herself on a few field trips. “We have three Sacred Heart Schools in Uganda,” White noted, “and I was thrilled to visit each one.” White spent a lot of time at the Kangole Girls’ Senior Secondary School in Moroto. “I volunteered at Kangole Girls’ for two weeks and got really involved in the Science Club. I made a connection with a student who was about to compete in the national science fair and that was incredibly special and motivational to me.”

White needn’t seek out a Sacred Heart School in order to reconnect with the Society’s Goals. The Sacred Heart mission is something she carries with her.

“I will never forget reading Mountains Beyond Mountains for the first time in 11th grade religion class,” recalled White. “The book is about Partners in Health founder Dr. Paul Farmer, and it was my first exposure to public health in the context of service, which was incredibly inspiring to me.” The public health-service seed was well planted in 11th grade, and White’s academic achievement and contributions to her communities continue to grow.

White feels at home in a professional community that runs into the burning buildings of global health crises. “When COVID unfolded in the United States, everyone in my epidemiology world just sprang into action,” she recalled. “Whether it was launching public health responses or accelerating research, the call to action did not go unanswered.”

Perfectly suited to her CDC fellowship, White is part of a highly selective training program called the Epidemic Intelligence Service - a training ground for post doctoral students drawn to front lines of applied epidemiology. “The CDC does rigorous research in the service of the American people. I really like that mission and service based environment,” she said.
 
Recently assigned to CDC’s Influenza Division at its Atlanta, Georgia headquarters, White will engage in data-driven projects about vaccine effectiveness, novel flu surveillance, and international work. Referencing the emergence and reemergence of monkeypox and polio, White knows that CDC will deploy its officers to address these and other public health threats - a challenge for which she is ready. “CDC is always reminding us of its pledge to the American people. That really resonates with me.”