CDC Women in STEM Careers - Emine Yaylali, PhD
Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention, National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, CDC
Growing up in Turkey, Emine Yaylali and her sister enjoyed playing with toy circuit boards and conducting homemade experiments. They built batteries with lemons and salt, based on something they had seen in cartoons. They even made a doorbell out of utensils, which caused a neighborhood power outage!
Emine’s favorite French cartoon was about discoverers and explorers. It told stories of famous scientists and inventors in history. The children’s show planted the seeds for her lifelong love affair with science and math.
On her career as an industrial engineer, she says, “My favorite place to use my skills is in health care, mainly public health.”
Growing Up Free to Explore
I was lucky to have parents who indulged my curiosity as a child. They encouraged me to learn, explore, and analyze. That freedom allowed me to test my creativity and abilities.
Fortunately, I was able to pursue my education with a science and math focus. I was selected through a national exam to be one of a handful of female students at the Science and Math High School in my region.
In high school it was hard to choose what to study in college: science or engineering. In the end, engineering won out, thanks to its strong basis in math. I decided to major in industrial engineering.
Industrial engineering and operations research seek to make systems more efficient. Often this is accomplished through mathematical modeling, which I have a passion for.
In simple terms, industrial engineers figure out how to do things better. This could be improving manufacturing in a car factory, finding the cheapest deal on an airplane ticket, or assigning money for HIV prevention to help the greatest number of people possible.
My interest in public health all started with an outbreak in Turkey.”
Bird Flu Needs Coordinated Response
When I was a junior in college, there was an outbreak of avian flu, an infection caused by bird flu virus. It terrorized us. People in Turkey didn’t eat poultry for nearly a year, and thousands of animals were killed to stop the disease. I felt frustrated by the public health response.
It seemed that the health care providers’ approach was mostly to treat patients and recommend protection such as hand washing. This response was mainly one-on-one, when people went to their health care provider. However, an overall preparedness system for outbreaks was not available.
I saw an opportunity for industrial engineers to be brought in to work with physicians and improve plans for outbreak preparedness. Coincidentally, years later I had a chance to make this dream happen.
As a graduate student in operations research at North Carolina State University, I worked with my advisor on a CDC-funded project to develop the Health Alert Network statewide. It’s CDC’s way to share information about urgent public health problems with health care providers, public health laboratories, and others. We built mathematical and simulation models of infectious diseases such as the flu and pertussis and improved response systems to control outbreaks.
I wanted to work on health care and public health applications of industrial engineering and operations research after completing my doctorate, because of the chance to make a huge difference and improve lives.
I was fortunate to be offered a fellowship in the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention at CDC.
I make mathematical models of how to best spend money to prevent as many cases of HIV infection as possible. By using money for screening, we’re finding people who test positive, and then with that knowledge, we can help them change their behavior and avoid spreading HIV to others.
My hope is that health departments take advantage of these models and help spare greater numbers of people from HIV infection.
Advice to Girls and Young Women
- Love what you do. Having a career in a field dominated by men may not be easy, but if you enjoy your job and are passionate about it, you will overcome any difficulties that you encounter.
- Do not accept common practice as your only choice. You can work in many fields. Some of these could be unconventional—such as being an industrial engineer at CDC—but they offer an opportunity to bring your own brand of creativity to an emerging field and make a difference.
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