Profession: Chief of the Drug Development Section (DDS), Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (DMID) at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), National Institutes of Health (NIH). My group supports development of new drugs to treat infectious diseases such as Ebola, influenza and anti-microbial resistant bacterial infections (for example, MRSA).
What does your role entail? Pharmaceutical companies have largely abandoned developing new anti-infective drugs, which leaves a large gap in the arsenal of medicines we need to treat existing and emerging diseases like Dengue fever, pandemic influenza and antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. We fill that development gap by working with innovators in academia, industry and at non-profits to advance new, important medicines to treat infectious diseases. We provide expertise and advice as well as funding and access to our development resources so that new drugs can advance toward use in humans to treat infectious diseases.
How did your group play an important role in the federal response to the Ebola epidemic? While the world became aware of Ebola virus disease (EVD) in 2014, my group has been helping drug development efforts for EVD and the closely-related Marburg virus Disease (MVD) for over a decade. For several years, we've worked with the investigators and the company that developed ZMapp to get an EVD treatment ready for testing in humans. When the Ebola epidemic hit, we collaborated with other government agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to get the data needed to allow use of ZMapp in people. At the same time we've been supporting and collaborating with a company that is making another promising drug for treating Ebola: BCX4430. In the fall of 2013 we awarded a contract for the development of BCX4430. When it was clear that there was an epidemic occurring, we accelerated development efforts to get additional drug manufactured and tested as quickly as possible. Throughout the Ebola crisis, we've worked closely with the FDA to provide information needed to evaluate the drugs prior to using them in humans. We've also provided continuous updates to our leadership, especially the Director of NIAID, who was constantly being called upon for media and congressional updates. Both ZMapp and BCX4430 are in testing in human trials. We hope they will both prove to be effective in treating EVD.
Why did you decide to pursue a Ph.D. in microbiology? I was one of the kids who was wanting to look at things under a microscope. Growing up I wanted to be a veterinarian and I worked at a veterinary hospital during high school, so I began to understand the basis of diseases. During college I had a part time job in a research laboratory in the Veterinary Microbiology Department of Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine. When I graduated, the lab offered me a full-time job as a technician. Working there I found out how much I enjoyed scientific research. We studied retroviruses that cause cancer in cats (Feline Leukemia Virus) and I still remember seeing retrovirus particles under an electron microscope for the first time. I decided I wanted to be a scientist. For my doctorate at Colorado State University, I continued to do research on retroviruses. It was an exciting time because the retroviruses that cause diseases in humans, such as HIV, were just being discovered. Over time, though, my work in basic research felt too far away from directly benefitting people. I moved into drug development so I could use my scientific background to help bridge new therapies from research laboratories into clinical trials.
What professional achievement are you most proud of? Being able to advance new therapies from a laboratory into clinical trials in humans is very rewarding and some of the anti-infective drugs we support are proving effective in treating infectious diseases. Before coming to NIAID, I worked at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) at NIH doing similar work to advance new cancer therapies. Some of the products I helped develop at NCI have since been used to treat patients with very deadly cancers, like glioblastoma, and they've exhibited good results. I hope those therapies continue to move forward just as I hope that the anti-infective work I'm doing now will provide new drugs to treat serious infectious diseases.
What's your morning routine? On weekdays I get up at 5:30 a.m. and have coffee before taking our two Labrador retrievers for a walk. Then I feed and water the dozen chickens we keep on our farm and collect any eggs I find. After that, it's a rush for me, my husband and our two daughters to get ready for school and work. Everyone is out of the house by 7:20 a.m. During my 45-minute drive to work I have time to think about what's ahead for the day and I begin to formulate my priority action items so I'm ready to start as soon as I reach my office.
What's the first thing you do when you feel yourself getting a cold? I use the old-fashioned trick that my mother taught me of gargling with salt water. To soothe a sore throat I prepare a cup of hot water with honey and the juice from half of a fresh lemon. For a cough suppressant, I eat a spoonful of honey. Since I'm a beekeeper, we always have honey around the house. I also remind my family to wash their hands, cover their cough and get a yearly flu vaccine!
What's your remedy for a bad day? My whole family agrees that the cure for a bad day or a bad mood is a long walk in the woods with our dogs. Spending time surrounded by nature and watching the dogs play and explore the woods and stream clears your head and helps you regain perspective on life.
How do you balance your work and professional life? We have a small farm so there are always chores to be done, whether it's caring for the chickens or the honeybee hives, chopping wood or working in the vegetable garden. We love being outside. Our two girls, ages 11 and 14, are also active in Girl Scouts and on sports teams (volleyball and swimming), so we're busy with their schedules and activities. The federal government is a family-friendly place to work and I'm provided with technology to sometimes work from home, where I can carry out all of my work activities as if I were in the office. All of my staff telework twice a week, as well, and the time they save commuting can be spent keeping up with their families. It reduces the NIH carbon footprint, too.
What's the biggest thing you've learned from your job? The success you achieve is not solely due to your own talents. It's highly dependent on your relationships with others. The federal government does not always move as quickly as I'd like, but I've developed networks of colleagues who share the same mission and values and who know what I've done thus far to enhance that mission. When I get a new idea and I can explain it in terms of how it would benefit our shared mission, it's easier for me to recruit the support of our leadership as well as those colleagues who have to help carry out the work. It's essential to have collaborative relationships up and down the chain of command.
What's a quote you try to live by? Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered). I love challenges; it's exhilarating to work with a team to brainstorm, strategize, implement and improve programs and work to achieve a common goal. I've seen the process expressed as: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, Reforming. Once a mission is accomplished, I'm ready to take on another project. Which is good, because there are always more challenging projects coming along.
What advice do you have for collegians wanting to work in the medical and medical research fields? I would advise anyone to find opportunities to explore different jobs and careers. I've worked for a veterinarian, I've washed glassware in a research laboratory that led to my first job in research and I worked at different research venues doing drug discovery and development in the government, in academia and in private biotechnology. Those experiences helped me to narrow and define the work that I find most fulfilling. I'm in the best job possible now, serving the American public and delivering new therapies that can improve the health of people everywhere.