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CDC Women in STEM Careers - Jacquelyn Sampson, PhD

Formerly a Microbiologist in the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, CDC
Now retired

Jacquelyn Sampson

When Jacquelyn Sampson grew up, most children caught measles, mumps, rubella, and chickenpox. There weren’t many vaccines to help them stay well. Then her sister became ill with diphtheria, a disease that can cause breathing problems, paralysis, and even death. The family had to stay home for two weeks so the disease wouldn’t spread to other people.

Jacquelyn grew curious about what caused diseases and how they spread. Her sister’s sickness with diphtheria had opened the door to a new word that never lost its intrigue: microbiology.

On microbiology, she says, “A career in science is exciting. It’s also demanding! Sometimes your experiments require long hours—maybe even overnight. It’s all part of a balancing act that women in science face. But the rewards are worth the sacrifice if you love scientific research and discovery.”

Mystery Set the Stage for Her Career

I grew up in a small Southern town in the 1950s, when blacks and whites attended separate schools. We didn’t have much exposure to the outside world, so my knowledge of health careers was limited to the family doctor (who actually made house visits), his nurse, our dentist, and the health department nurse who came to school once a year to immunize children.

We didn’t know about infectious diseases and vaccines to protect people from getting sick. A chain of events introduced me to microbiology when my sister got sick with a terrible “mystery” illness in 1959, later diagnosed as diphtheria. My family was quarantined, meaning we couldn’t leave the house for fear we might infect other people. We had to have throat cultures tested to see if we were carrying infectious organisms. They swabbed our throats with cotton swabs, which were sent to a laboratory in Atlanta for testing to detect bacteria. This was the first time I’d heard that there were laboratory tests to detect what disease someone had.

Little did I know I was on my way to a career as a microbiologist, studying the growth of organisms that can’t be seen by the naked eye.

I want women to know about the variety of scientific career choices available today. We need more women in science.”

Patents for Vaccines to Prevent Pneumonia

The 1960s and 1970s were eras of social change, with broader horizons for many, including women and minorities. I had been taught that a college degree helped you achieve your goals. I majored in biology as an undergraduate and then spent two years working at Duke Medical Center as a respiratory care technician. I saw bacterial and viral infections in patients with pneumonia and lung disease and knew I was interested in researching infectious diseases. I was eager to learn how microorganisms cause disease and how the body heals. So I earned a PhD in microbiology.

I came to CDC as a laboratory researcher in respiratory diseases. Over the years, my job to help detect and prevent diseases has been exciting and included everything from gene cloning to vaccine discovery.

One highlight of my career was the discovery of a protein from Streptococcus pneumoniae by our laboratory group. A vaccine company became interested in this protein and formed an agreement with CDC to allow them to test this protein in a potential combination protein vaccine to prevent pneumococcal pneumonia.

Even though for reasons unrelated to our protein, our industry collaborator decided not to pursue development of this combination vaccine, I am so grateful for the opportunity to have taken our protein from the laboratory bench to the health care industry for evaluation as a possible means of prevention. Our protein discovery led to seven CDC patents, which are property rights granted to market your invention; and I, along with my laboratory group, the Immunology Laboratory in the Division of Bacterial Diseases, received a CDC Director’s Innovation Award in 2009 for our work.

Advice to Girls and Young Women

  1. Pay no attention to stereotypes about science being boring. This is the most exciting time to have a science career. You can travel all over the world. You can be a marine biologist studying organisms at the bottom of the sea. You’re not confined to a laboratory. You’re not a boring person!
  2. Believe you can do it. It’s possible to succeed in a scientific career. It just takes hard work and dedication.

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