Meet Lucy McNamara, Epidemiologist at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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Describe your job and what you do on a day-to-day basis.  My current position is as an epidemiologist in the branch of CDC that works on meningococcal meningitis, whooping cough, tetanus, and diphtheria.  I work on a number of different projects, including data analyses using domestic surveillance data, an evaluation of the new meningitis serogroup B vaccines that were recently licensed in the US, a study to better understand diagnostic tests for whooping cough, and work to support meningitis surveillance in the meningitis belt in Africa.  My activities vary dramatically by the day, but include performing statistical analyses, writing scientific articles and other documents, meeting and corresponding with internal and external partners about our projects, and domestic and international travel to perform evaluations and outbreak investigations.

How did you get your first job out of academia?  My first job outside of academia was as an Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) Officer at CDC (more info here: http://www.cdc.gov/eis/).  EIS is a selective 2-year service and training program for young professionals who are interested in applied epidemiology and is famous for the role of EIS officers in outbreak investigations and public health emergencies (e.g. Katrina, MERS, Ebola).  Most EIS officers are MDs or have PhDs in epidemiology, but you can qualify for the program with other degrees (including a PhD in biomedical sciences) as well.  As an EIS officer I engaged in many of the same activities listed above for my current job as well as training activities and participating in CDC emergency responses – for instance, I was able to travel to both Guinea and Liberia in 2014 to help with the response to the Ebola epidemic.

EIS has an application process that is in many ways more similar to applying to graduate school than applying to most jobs.  You submit an application (with personal statement and recommendation letters) during the summer, then a subset of candidates are invited to interview in Atlanta in October, and you find out if you made it in in December.  Selection of specific positions within EIS happens later and then the program starts in July.  I can’t say for sure why I was selected, but I think it helped that in spite of my biomedical background, I was extremely enthusiastic about EIS and had a very clear idea of what I was getting into (via my MS in epidemiology and a lot of research on EIS) that I was able to convey in my application and interview.

Tell us about your academic background.  My undergraduate degree is a BA in Biology from Swarthmore College.  I actually became interested in EIS and epidemiology late in my undergraduate career, when I realized that they provided an opportunity to take action on practical public health problems while still engaging in scientific thinking, study design, and analysis.  As Swarthmore is a small liberal arts college, however, I didn’t have an opportunity to take classes in epidemiology as an undergraduate.  Because of this, I wanted to find a graduate school experience that would let me continue to gain expertise in a field I knew I liked – molecular biology – while also gaining experience with the fields I suspected I wanted to end up in – epidemiology and public health.  I looked at a variety of interdisciplinary graduate programs and eventually decided to go to the University of Michigan where I pursued a dual degree program to earn a PhD in Microbiology and Immunology and an MS in Hospital and Molecular Epidemiology.  My thesis research focused on HIV infection in hematopoietic progenitor cells, and as a graduate student I also completed a Certificate in Global Health.

What is one piece of advice you would give to someone looking for a job now? I think a lot of times, as PhDs or students pursuing PhDs, we feel a lot of pressure to have highly successful careers even if it comes at the expense of everything else in our lives.  One reason that people may want to leave academia is because it can sometimes offer a poor work-life balance, but academia is far from the only field where this can be an issue.

So my advice: when you’re looking for a job, make sure to think about what you want your life to look like, not just your career.  It’s essential to factor in your personal life when making a career decision – how will your work-life balance be with this new job?  Do you want to move to the city where it’s located – and even if you do, will your significant other be able to find a job there too (if s/he wants to)?  Where will your kids go to school?  Most importantly, don’t feel that you are failing if you have to make compromises in your career for the sake of other aspects of your life.  Family, friends, hobbies, and sleep are important parts of your life too!

Find Lucy on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lucy-mcnamara-958b1026

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