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Feature Stories

All About the Science: Fellows’ Findings and Accomplishments

Jesica Jacobs

LLS fellow Jesica Jacobs (Class of 2019)

In September 2020, states received the Abbott BinaxNOW rapid antigen detection kits for COVID-19 surveillance that were approved by the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization only for testing in people showing symptoms of COVID-19. LLS fellow Jesica Jacobs led the charge by the Massachusetts Governor for the State Public Health Laboratory to determine how well the tests could detect SARS-CoV-2 in people with and without symptoms. Jesica worked with the lab director to organize and execute the study, analyze the data, and publish the findings. She managed a diverse team of experts for lab testing, data entry, and specimen collection and setup study locations at a hospital and large drive-through specimen collection site. She coordinated with hospital administrators, practitioners, lab staff, and arranged for specimen transport with the state’s Emergency Management Agency. The study results deemed the test to be effective in identifying SARS-CoV-2 in both people with and without symptoms, resulting in the Massachusetts state government’s decision to expand its approval for use among asymptomatic people and distribute the rapid antigen detection kits throughout the state. Study findings have the potential for national impact as they were shared across the U.S. to help states make informed decisions and shared at the FDA’s request as they considered expanding their approval. See related coverage in the American Association for the Advancement of Science news release and in a news article.

Learn more about Jesica and her experiences as a disease detective in this CDC responder story.

Browse past feature stories:

Evonne Woodson

LLS fellow Evonne Woodson (Class of 2019)

Personal Profiles: Career Paths and Fellowship Experiences

April Clayton, PhD
April Clayton
"Being an LLS fellow and contributing positively to the mission of occupational health and safety as well as animal welfare at CDC has truly been a transformative experience."

Ever since I was 16, I knew I wanted to be a scientist to serve on the front lines of public health. As a trained mosquito biologist, I have a long-standing interest and passion to understand how animals and insects, the pathogens they may harbor, humans, and the environment interact to identify means to curb disease. While completing my post-doctoral at the National Institutes of Health in mosquitoborne viruses, I decided to apply for the LLS to advance my career and develop into a leader purposed to support public health research focusing on human, animal, and environmental health.

In 2016, I became an LLS fellow in CDC’s Comparative Medicine Branch, where I conduct research focusing on occupational health, safety, and risk management as well as quality management systems aimed to achieve excellence in animal welfare. I have had the opportunity to work with veterinarians, animal care staff, and scientists to perform risk assessments to minimize occupational hazards. An example of my cross-cutting work is a risk assessment I led. It involved working with veterinary staff to collect environmental samples during dental procedures with non-human primates to determine if there are any pathogens generated and to help inform appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements for the veterinary staff performing or assisting with this task. This collaborative effort also involved working with colleagues at the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), who provided equipment to allow us to collect air samples during the dentals. This research allows us to use scientific data to inform occupational safety practices. Another opportunity that I had involved training U.S. Public Health Service Officers at CDC the appropriate procedures for donning and doffing PPE that may be used in disease outbreak responses. Teaching public health responders how to properly put on and take off PPE is critically important to responder  health and safety and to minimize spread of disease.

Being an LLS fellow has afforded me opportunities to contribute to improving the quality and safety of CDC’s labs. I have led in the development and implementation of a holistic, scientifically-driven occupational risk management program for our branch. I have also had the opportunity to be part of a CDC Epi-Aid team sent to South Carolina to investigate a Seoul Virus outbreak among owners and their pet rats, and provide technical assistance and perform boots-on-the ground occupational risk assessments. As an LLS fellow in the Comparative Medicine Branch, I have had the opportunity to gain practical skills in animal biosafety and welfare as well occupational safety and health. The skills and experience I have obtained will allow me to flourish as a public health leader.

This story is also available as a printable PDF [256 KB, PDF – 1 page, 508].

Cecilia Kretz, PhD
Cecila Kretz

“LLS fueled my personal and professional growth through experiences that I never would’ve gotten as a researcher. LLS gives opportunities you won’t find elsewhere—it’s game-changing!”

I have always been intrigued by microbes (like bacteria) that cause disease, specifically how they evolve and adapt to their environment. I find it fascinating that there are more types of bacteria on Earth than stars in the universe!

In my graduate work at the University of California Irvine, I investigated the effect of environmental change on marine Cyanobacteria using metagenomics and bioinformatics tools. In my post-doctoral training at Georgia Institute of Technology, I used comparative genomic methods to understand the role of microbes in deep-sea sediments. As sequencing technologies advanced, I was drawn to CDC’s work in this area and eager to have a direct impact on public health by applying new genomics methods to pathogens. For two years I worked as a contractor in CDC’s Bacterial Meningitis Laboratory as a molecular microbiologist and bioinformatician where, for the first time, I could see the immediate impact of my work. I learned the value of collaboration between the lab, epidemiologists, and state partners. I fell in love with public health and realized that similar concepts—modes of transmission, genetic similarities, and comparative genomics during outbreak investigations and surveillance—could be applied to microbes.

I heard about the Laboratory Leadership Service (LLS) from lab colleagues who were alumni of the program. The LLS fellowship seemed like the perfect way to augment my training as a researcher. I was excited to be selected as one of the first LLS fellows to work in the field at a state/local public health laboratory—this was an opportunity I’d always wanted.

In August 2017, I began my assignment in the New York City Public Health Laboratory (NYC PHL), a very high-profile, high-volume testing facility. I served as a liaison between CDC and the NYC PHL and led studies to detect and characterize source and potable water microbiota using whole genome sequencing and metagenomics analyses. I developed both wet and dry lab bioinformatics analyses pipelines and helped refine methods for testing water samples. I also had an amazing opportunity to learn innovative techniques used by New York State’s Wadsworth Center and CDC to support a Legionella cluster investigation. This hands-on training prepared me to lead CDC’s first Lab-Aid response, which required coordination across four laboratories to implement Legionella testing at the Hawaii Department of Health and expand the laboratory’s outbreak response capacity.

I was given an opportunity to take a leadership role in support of NYC’s groundbreaking sexual health initiative “Ending the AIDS Epidemic.”  In this role, and in the busiest NYC Health Department Sexual Health Clinic, I led the design and implementation of an “express” laboratory that streamlines clinical testing to help diagnose asymptomatic sexual health issues in record time and enable prompt treatment. Read about this successful project in the NBC News article (June 2019) posted on the LLS Fellows in the News web page.

LLS instilled the leadership, safety and quality training I lacked as a researcher, shaped me into a well-rounded public health scientist and provided me with valuable opportunities to make a real difference in public health. As the next step in my career, I’ve accepted a position as the Manager of Emerging and Zoonotic Diseases at the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL), where I oversee activities for Advanced Molecular Detection, Antibiotic Resistance and, Vector-Borne Diseases.

This story is also available as a printable PDF [395 KB, 1 Page, 508].

Atanaska Marinova-Petkova, DVM, MS, PhD
Marinova Petkova

“LLS has given me the most amazing hands-on opportunities to expand my expertise, polish my leadership skills, and fulfill my dream of impacting public health.”

My childhood dream of becoming a physician evolved into a veterinarian role, after realizing the potential for a broader impact on public health. As a veterinarian, I discovered my passion—protecting both animals and  humans against microorganisms (germs) that can cause dangerous diseases—and I felt an unwavering commitment to contribute to public health.

When working in CDC’s Influenza Division, I felt closer than ever to my dream of working in public health, and this is also when I learned of the Laboratory Leadership Service (LLS). What was most appealing to me about LLS was the ability to apply innovative approaches and my previous work experience to address real-world public health problems on behalf of CDC.

My research career began at the National Veterinary Service in Bulgaria where I spent seven years performing routine diagnostics and conducting research studies on avian influenza viruses that posed significant threats to human health.  My collaborations with scientists from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital led me to the United States to continue my work in this field as a postdoctoral researcher. I worked in high biocontainment facilities with different animal models and studied highly pathogenic H5N1 influenza viruses from across the world. These data were used by the World Health Organization to formulate recommendations for pandemic influenza vaccines and preparedness.

My two-year journey as an LLS fellow began in 2017 when assigned to CDC’s Bacterial Special Pathogens Branch in the Zoonoses and Select Agent Laboratory. I had the most amazing hands-on opportunities to expand my expertise, polish my leadership skills, and fulfill my dream of impacting public health. I led anthrax laboratory capacity-building activities in Cameroon where I trained laboratory scientists on anthrax molecular diagnostics for human and animal health. I then developed an autoclave inactivation method for Bacillus anthracis (the causative agent of anthrax) to be used in combination with molecular diagnostics in low-resource countries, allowing laboratory staff to work safely without handling the live agent. It is a particularly helpful approach for laboratories lacking the necessary biosafety equipment to work with B. anthracis.

Another highlight of my LLS fellowship was participating in an outbreak investigation of the first reported cases of leptospirosis and melioidosis in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), following Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. I worked closely with CDC and USVI epidemiologists to implement local surveillance of these diseases. This collaboration helped us find additional cases of leptospirosis and determine potential risk factors.

My LLS experience as a whole empowered me with the tools and a platform to impact public health. The LLS program and network have opened new doors for my career and allowed me to meet and learn from influential public health leaders within and outside of CDC. I am thrilled to be serving as a Senior Biologist in CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention.

This story is also available as a printable PDF [289 KB, 1 Page, 508].

Alexandra Mercante, PhD
Alexandra Mercante
"Being an LLS fellow at the front lines of public health at CDC has been a rewarding opportunity to expand my training as a microbiologist while positively impacting people’s lives.”

As a microbiologist from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, I have always been interested in helping people live healthy lives and understanding how bacteria cause disease.

While I was completing my post-doctoral training at CDC in the Tuberculosis Laboratory Branch, I discovered the Laboratory Leadership Service (LLS) program and decided it would be the perfect next step for my career.

In 2015, I became an LLS fellow in CDC’s Enteric Diseases Laboratory Branch, where I conduct applied public health laboratory research with an emphasis on lab safety and quality management systems. One of the most exciting parts of my LLS experience so far was when I was a part of a CDC Epi-Aid team that assisted with an E. coli O157 outbreak investigation among visitors to a goat farm in rural Connecticut. A total of 50 confirmed cases of E. coli infection were associated with the outbreak, including 47 with an epidemiologic link to the goat farm. We obtained 61 environmental samples; among these, 28 (46%) yielded E. coli O157. Of the 17 samples collected from goats, 16 yielded E. coli O157. Through the Epi-Aid, we were able to provide technical assistance to the Connecticut Department of Public Health in responding to this urgent public health problem, and our support guided the development of public health recommendations to prevent future E. coli O157 outbreaks.

I have also led a variety of projects, including the implementation of holistic biorisk management into our laboratory safety system. In addition, I am working toward increased integration of laboratory quality and safety activities across my branch.

Being an LLS fellow at the front lines of public health at CDC has allowed me the opportunity to pursue my passions as a microbiologist and answer scientific questions that enhance public health and have a positive impact on people’s lives.

This story is also available as a printable PDF [325 KB, 1 page, 508].

Caelin Potts, PhD
Caelin Potts
"This unique experience allowed me to use my scientific and communication skills, serve on a multidisciplinary team, and directly impact a public health response.”

As a research scientist, I have always been interested in how my work could impact human health. During my graduate work at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and my postdoctoral studies at Emory University, I focused on scientific research related to cell division and how DNA structure affects gene expression. I was drawn to these fields because an understanding of basic biological elements is essential to developing medicinal therapies. After 10+ years of discovery-based research experiences, I longed for a role with a more direct and immediate impact on public health. When I learned about the Laboratory Leadership Service (LLS) from a program participant, I knew it was a perfect fit for me to continue my professional development while addressing real public health issues. I was especially excited for an opportunity to work in a CDC laboratory, where my work can potentially inform public health policy decisions.

My LLS fellowship began in 2016 with an assignment to CDC’s Bacterial Meningitis Laboratory (BML) in the Meningitis and Vaccine Preventable Diseases Branch. Because I’d never worked with a pathogen before joining CDC, I was eager to serve on a team of experts where I could apply my technical expertise in whole genome sequencing to U.S. disease surveillance activities. In my role, I used whole genome sequencing techniques to characterize the genetic diversity of Neisseria meningitides isolates – the cause of meningococcal diseases collected in the U.S. from 2011–2015.

I also conducted risk assessment and implemented quality control metrics to improve quality and safety on advanced molecular testing in my laboratory. Overall, the combination of on-the-job service and professional training in research, quality and safety have given me a strong foundation to excel both inside and outside of the laboratory.

A pinnacle of my fellowship experience was participating in a joint laboratory and epidemiological outbreak investigation in response to a cluster of 31 cases of unexplained illness, including 13 deaths, reported in Sinoe County, Liberia. My laboratory investigation during the response led to 13 confirmed and 3 probable meningococcal cases. I also coordinated communications between the Incident Response Team in Atlanta headquarters and the in-country team conducting specimen testing. This unique experience allowed me to use my scientific and communication skills, serve on a multidisciplinary team, and directly impact a public health response.

The LLS fellowship is an amazing opportunity that has inspired and positioned me for a career in public health.

This story is also available as a printable PDF [338 KB, PDF – 1 page, 508].

Zachary Weiner, PhD
Zachery Weiner
"I have taken part in many different fellowship programs during my career, and I can honestly say that the LLS fellowship is by far my best run.”

I developed a strong interest in laboratory science while working on my PhD at the University of Virginia where I investigated the interaction between Bacillus anthracis and the immune system. This work was the start of my journey in public health. I began my laboratory work at CDC through the American Society of Microbiology (ASM) postdoctoral fellowship. Towards the end of my ASM fellowship, my supervisor sent me information about the Laboratory Leadership Service (LLS) fellowship. I applied, knowing that it would be a great opportunity to continue my laboratory work at CDC.

As an LLS fellow, I am currently assigned to CDC’s Poxvirus and Rabies Branch in the Division of High Consequence Pathogens and Pathology. As part of my assignment, I have helped design and implement an occupational exposure tool leading to rapid and efficient response and reporting of occupational incidents by laboratory personnel, their supervisors, and the occupational health clinic.

I also had the opportunity to visit Cameroon to conduct seminars and trainings on Monkeypox virus in response to an outbreak that occurred in 2016. Additionally, I provide technical assistance to public health laboratories in Central Africa as the first steps to building technology transfers for diagnostics and surveillance reporting.

The training I’ve gained as an LLS fellow thus far has afforded me to serve as the Acting Team Lead of the Quality and Compliance Team within the Poxvirus and Rabies Branch. I supervise and manage the day-to-day activities of multiple laboratory spaces, act as a biosafety officer, and design and implement quality management systems. I have taken part in many different fellowship programs during my career and I can honestly say that the LLS fellowship is by far my best run.

In addition to my studies in public health research, LLS has also given me the opportunity to network with a wide variety of experts within CDC and gain a greater understanding of how all aspects of the agency are interconnected. Most importantly, I will be able to use my laboratory leadership experiences to positively impact public health wherever my career takes me next.

This story is also available as a printable PDF [370 KB, 1 page, 508].