Hand-washing stations, quarantine checkpoints, burial teams, and ambulances traversing the countryside were new sights for Dr. Heather Clayton, 2010 College of Public Health PhD graduate, who said she had only vaguely imagined that level of ground-zero public health duty before deploying to Sierra Leone this fall as part of the Centers for Disease Control’s role in the Ebola outbreak response.
It was by no means her first overseas public health experience. In fact, Clayton said, her first international public health endeavor was a COPH international field experience in Niger. She has since traveled to other continents several times with the CDC.
“I did imagine that I would have several opportunities to do frontline work as an epidemiologist, particularly during my time as an EIS officer,” she said, “but I never imagined in my life that I would be working on an Ebola outbreak.”
Dr. Clayton said she had felt her first pangs of a public health career while an undergraduate in chemistry at the University of California at Irvine.
“During my undergraduate studies, I took a public health class and just fell in love with epidemiology,” she said. “I liked thinking about health from a population perspective, and with that perspective, the potential for impacting health on a large scale.
“The required reading for the course was Laurie Garrett’s book The Coming Plague. I think it was the first non-fiction book that I can recall reading late into the night. I was just fascinated by the early history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, outbreaks of hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola and Lassa, as well as other diseases of concern.
“Garrett’s book also exposed me to the work of disease detectives at the CDC and inspired additional readings, such as Level 4: Virus Hunters of the CDC. I just thought CDC sounded like the most amazing place to work. It became my goal to get there someday.”
After completing her chemistry degree, Dr. Clayton said, she remained inspired by public health and her CDC dream, so she enrolled in MPH studies at San Diego State University. It wouldn’t be long before she would get a real-life introduction to that special place she had first imagined in late-night readings.