Nancy Chow’s Journey as an Associate Service Fellow Through the Molecular Epidemiology Fellowship (MEF) Program

Nancy Chow (2017-2019)

Nancy Chow (2017-2019)

As an Associate Service Fellow with an emphasis in Molecular Epidemiology and the primary visionary behind the MEF program, Nancy Chow reflects on the path that led to the program’s creation and how the fellowship has shaped her career.

Nancy Chow has worked in a lab since she was 15 years old. As an undergraduate, she spent summers as an intern at a plant pathology laboratory at the University of Georgia. She was fascinated by fungal pathogens and their mechanisms of pathogenicity in corn plants. This interest drove Nancy to earn a PhD in biological sciences from Harvard University. After graduation, she joined CDC as a molecular microbiologist in the Mycotic Diseases Branch.

Path to the CDC

At CDC, Nancy worked to bolster her knowledge of molecular epidemiology through a genomics lens. Nancy taught herself bioinformatics, so she was better positioned to interpret biological data.

As Nancy’s yearning to understand pathogenicity came knocking again, she knew that she wanted to understand fungal disease etiology more comprehensively, so she began going on outbreak investigations. In the field, Nancy noticed that she relied heavily on the skills of the epidemiologists, as this area was outside of her expertise. She realized that to understand pathogenicity at its most holistic level, she needed to become a molecular epidemiologist.

Path to MEF

Nancy knew what she needed to do—study applied epidemiology and understand how epidemiology paired with genomics.

Nancy began piloting the Molecular Epidemiology Fellowship program. This program would train laboratory scientists in applied molecular epidemiology and create molecular epidemiologists. This innovative training would expand laboratory scientists’ career potential and allow them to navigate seamlessly between the laboratory science and epidemiology worlds. While designing this program, Nancy felt a tug to become officially trained in epidemiology herself, so she attended the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, where she earned a master’s in epidemiology. With this deeper understanding, Nancy could ensure that the MEF program would provide its fellows with strong training in epidemiology.

Participating in the investigation process was both the most enjoyable and the most challenging part of Nancy’s experience piloting the MEF program. She loved joining fieldwork activities, which meant experiencing all aspects of the investigation: clinical, epidemiologic, and genomic. A bonus was working alongside the epidemiologists. It gave her a more profound understanding of the investigative process and hurdles. But at first, Nancy also found herself feeling anxious about investigations. The field environment was much different from the controlled laboratory setting, and Nancy was used to being an expert in every capacity in the laboratory. But challenging situations often lead to growth. Eventually, Nancy’s unease gave way to the excitement of conducting molecular epidemiology, learning and using this skill set, meeting new people, and traveling to new places.

Path after MEF

The MEF program prepared Nancy for her current role of leading a team in the Mycotic Diseases Branch focused on preventing and controlling invasive fungal infections. The team works on bioinformatics and data science activities involving laboratory and epidemiologic data. She leads staff to use genomic data for surveillance and public health investigations. Having an epidemiologic background has helped her better understand applications and limitations of genomic data for public health, as well as bridge the gap between laboratory staff and epidemiologists when conducting genomic surveillance and epidemiology.  Nancy unquestionably feels that graduating from the MEF program gave her the right experiences to lead this team and propelled her career forward. She can now market herself more competitively because she has experience in both laboratory and field settings.

According to Nancy, the value of the MEF program comes down to people understanding each other across disciplines, bridging a gap between the laboratory sciences and epidemiology, and speaking the same language.

The MEF program gives laboratory scientists the necessary skills to function and flourish within the molecular epidemiology field. MEF graduates can work at the intersection of the epidemiology and laboratory fields, create better working relationships between the disciplines, and produce higher-quality work more efficiently. If you are interested in learning more about the MEF program contact us at the MEF mailbox.