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2018 CSTE Student Scholar Melanie Firestone - Highlights from the 2018 Annual Conference

Posted By Melanie Firestone, MPH, Friday, October 19, 2018
Updated: Friday, October 19, 2018

Editor’s Note: In spring 2018, CSTE awarded its third student scholarship to Melanie Firestone, MPH. This year, the award was renamed the Jeffrey P. Davis Student Scholarship. Melanie has written a blog post on her experience as the first recipient of the Jeff Davis Scholarship, which was named in honor of the late CSTE past president and longtime Wisconsin State Epidemiologist.

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I was thrilled to be chosen as the 2018 recipient of the CSTE Student Scholarship. I was especially honored to learn I was the first recipient of the scholarship in honor of Jeffrey P. Davis. In the spring, I learned the impact of Dr. Davis’s work through Dr. Mike Osterholm’s emerging infections course at the University of Minnesota. While attending the 2018 Conference, I learned that Dr. Davis and I shared a common love for something in addition to public health – haiku. In his honor, I chose to start with the haiku above, since he was known for beginning his presentations with haiku.

Participating in the CSTE Annual Conference has long been a goal of mine, and I was particularly interested in attending this year because of the theme “Using data to weather the storms.” Public health is about problem solving, but it takes reliable surveillance data and collaboration to do so. CSTE allowed me to connect with people from state and local health departments along with federal agencies and academia to see firsthand how different agencies across the U.S. are using data to combat public health challenges. This year’s meeting was the largest gathering of epidemiologists to date and we learned that there is now approximately one epidemiologist per 100,000 population (2017 Epidemiology Capacity Assessment).

At CSTE, I was drawn to the sessions about foodborne disease and outbreak investigations since this is my particular area of interest. Through the pre-conference workshop and sessions, I gained a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by state and local epidemiologists in regards to foodborne disease surveillance. I particularly benefited from sessions that wrestled with challenges of how to effectively integrate the increased use of culture independent diagnostic tests (CIDTs) and whole genome sequencing (WGS). CIDTs can rapidly identify the general pathogen causing illness, but because they do not produce an isolate they do not yield subtyping information that can be used to identify clusters of illnesses. WGS, by contrast, provides more fine-tuned subtyping information, but takes significantly longer than the previous “gold standard” of pulsed field gel electrophoresis (PFGE). As surveillance activities evolve, there is an increased need to adapt approaches for investigating foodborne illnesses in order to rapidly stop and prevent them from occurring. As a result, many of these sessions provided an opportunity for state and local health departments to discuss how they are adapting to these changes and to learn from each other about how to handle challenges. At CSTE, innovations are tested against the reality of our public health systems.

A highlight of the conference was being able to attend the Jonathan Mann lecture and hear this year’s speaker, Dr. Eric Klinenberg. I first discovered his work as an undergraduate student where I was required to read his book, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago in my freshman sociology class. I have since read some of his other works, which provide good examples of using data to understand complex problems and the importance of an interdisciplinary perspective. Dr. Klinenberg’s talk on climate change emphasized the point made by Sandra Mullin in the plenary that there is a need to move beyond statistics in order to motivate change through stories because stories are less likely to be forgotten.

Having the opportunity to network with attendees and Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) officers was a truly invaluable experience. I identified a dissertation topic that will be valuable to state and local health departments faced with the need to adapt to new surveillance methods. This experience also reaffirmed my interest in working in the government setting to promote effective public health change. Thank you to everyone who contributed to the student scholarship fund for making my attendance possible. This scholarship will truly serve as a meaningful opportunity to create a generation of future public health epidemiologists.

Melanie Firestone, MPH is a doctoral candidate at the University of Minnesota studying environmental health with a concentration in infectious diseases. Her primary interests are in using surveillance data to drive prevention of foodborne illnesses. For more information or to make a donation to the Jeffrey P. Davis Student Scholarship Fund, please visit www.cstefoundation.org.

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