Describe your role at the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC).
I am an epidemiologist with Communicable Diseases & Immunization Service
, and together with my colleagues, we monitor and respond to foodborne illness outbreaks. My role is to use data and algorithms to look for patterns or increases in diseases. Once we start seeing them, that’s when this job really gets exciting; that’s when we know we might have an outbreak to investigate and hopefully we can identify the source.
Whenever we start an investigation, it can feel like we’re searching for a needle in a haystack. A lot of outbreaks are never solved. And those we do solve, can take days, weeks or even months. We’re looking for commonalities between cases, which is not always apparent in the beginning. For example, in the recent national Salmonella outbreak
, our team considered multiple different foods as the source. It took nearly three months of investigation before we could trace the outbreak to cream puffs and eclairs.
What inspired you to take up a career in public health?
I met an epidemiologist during my undergrad in Microbiology and thought her work sounded interesting. She talked about doing outbreak investigations and I wanted to do the same kind of work. I liked the idea of using data to solve puzzles and identifying what was making people sick. I started my master’s program in epidemiology while working on foodborne outbreaks with the Public Health Agency of Canada
. After that I joined the Canadian Field Epidemiology Program and moved to the BCCDC. I love that the nature of my work is so collaborative. I couldn’t do what I do without working closely with the teams at the BCCDC, in the labs and in the health authorities.
What changes do you anticipate in your field over the next decade?
The vast diets of people and transportation of food globally has really impacted our work and I foresee that continuing over the next decade. People today are eating foods we may have never heard of 10 years ago or didn’t think could cause illness. This can make tracing the source of an outbreak more challenging. For example, we didn’t previously know that chia seeds could be a source of Salmonella, or how easily you can contract a foodborne illness from handling raw pet food. Our work relies on using laboratory data and new methods such as whole genome sequencing which makes our work interesting and always changing.
How does your work improve patient care?
It’s really rewarding when you can help trace the source of the food that’s making people sick and take it out of the food market. Our job is to identify a source so that actions can be taken to prevent further people from getting sick.
What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
Every time we can identify a source of an outbreak, there’s a real level of pride that we worked through data and came to a solution and were able to pinpoint a cause. Every outbreak has a story. There’s a reason why people convene, spatially or temporally and commonalities in what they have eaten or where they have shopped for example. It starts with minute details and if we can identify those commonalities among enough ill individuals then we can identify the source of the outbreak. It’s a great ending when we can identify the source.
What is your favourite thing about your work?
I work with great people. I’m very fortunate to work with a group of people who are very interested and dedicated to their work. It can take a lot of work to solve an outbreak so I feel fortunate that everyone is so dedicated to working together. We have great expertise here in B.C. and across the country and every outbreak is a team effort.
Tell us a surprising fact about yourself.
I used to work as a dance teacher and taught jazz, tap, and ballet. These days though, I mostly just practice a lot of free movement dance with my almost four-year-old son.