This is an article from the spring 2019 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
Jennifer Collins (B.S. ’06) keeps two weeks per year completely free of any plans and obligations, a time when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can call on her help in case of a public health emergency. The call of duty can take public health private eyes like her anywhere—from a chili and chowder cookoff in Virginia to a school in Somalia.
Collins is a “disease detective,” one of between 70 and 80 physicians, veterinarians, dentists, research scientists, and others who apply their specialized skills each year to solve public health mysteries for the CDC.
“I haven’t gone on any of the outbreak responses for the scarier pathogens,” Collins says, referencing trips that might require her to use exotic equipment like snake chaps or blow guns. Instead, in the fall of 2017, an emergency sent Collins to a cruise ship. The setting might sound swank, but her job was to figure out the origin of a diarrhea outbreak on board.
On cruise ships, if an illness affects more than three percent of the people on board, then the CDC gets involved. Collins jumped aboard a ship as it reached the Virginia coast sailing south from Canada. “We sailed for three days down to Florida,” she says, “and gathered as much information as we could.”
Members of the team checked the kitchen, coolers, and food-flow process on board. Collins helped analyze data from questionnaires to try to isolate the source of the problem. Stool sample tests initially came up empty, but the disease detectives eventually helped figure out that a toxin from the bacterium Clostridium perfringens had beleaguered the passengers.
Luckily, the outbreak already was on the downswing by the time the CDC team reached the boat, in part because the ship’s crew had increased handwashing stations and otherwise upped their sanitation measures. “We made some recommendations to prevent spread, such as limiting buffets and having staff serve food to passengers,” recalls Collins. “If passengers are ill, and they’re serving themselves, then they may contaminate food or utensils and get others sick.”
Collins finds it satisfying to get to the bottom of public health problems like this that have an impact on so many people.
“Everyone eats and drinks, and people shouldn’t get sick from either,” she says.
Getting to the Action
Collins earned her Honors Biology degree from LSA and went on to medical school, learning to treat infectious and vaccine-preventable diseases in kids. “I became interested in public health while I was still an undergrad,” she says. “At Michigan, I took an awesome course on the anthropology of global health, which was cross-listed in the Department of Anthropology and the School of Public Health.”
In July 2017, Collins started a two-year fellowship with the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS), the training ground for the disease detectives who jump at the chance to don hazmat suits, face danger in the field, prevent harm, and save lives. Collins was thrilled about translating her clinical medical training—which involved helping the health of one kid at a time—to solving larger-scale public health problems.
EIS first began as a way to assemble enough smarts to figure out how to deal with the threat of biological warfare during the Korean War. Since then, the program has trained thousands of disease detectives and expanded its scope to respond to public health threats such as rabies, Ebola, food poisoning in prisons, PTSD among humanitarian aid workers, and hepatitis A outbreaks among homeless people.
“One of the hallmarks of EIS is going out into the field to serve at the front lines of public health by rapidly deploying and responding,” says Collins. “I think it draws the type of person who is interested in dropping everything when the opportunity arises to be of service and to help people.”
In addition to hopping on cruise ships, Collins also has investigated an antibiotic-resistant bacterial outbreak at a retirement community in Vermont and monitored nationwide datasets of antibiotic-resistant pathogens. She loves applying her knowledge of infectious diseases to answer real-world questions and make a visible impact on public health.
“When you think about the difference between public health and medicine,” she muses, “in public health, you can really have an impact on entire communities. There’s something very rewarding about that.”
When Collins finishes her stint as a disease detective, she hopes to stay with the CDC and find ways to connect clinical work and broader public health efforts.
Her advice to students who might want to do something similar: “If you think you might have an interest in something like public health, find an opportunity to take a class in it and see if you can expand that interest, or help clarify it,” Collins says. “Undergrad is such a rich environment to learn. Take advantage of the opportunities while you’re there.”
Illustration by Becky Sehenuk Waite