Mount St. Joseph University Biochemistry Alumna, Valentine Wanga, Describes Her Mount Experience as a Biochemistry Major and Her Current Position as an Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) Officer for the CDC.

valentine wanga with diana davis, msj provost.

Department of Chemistry and Physical Sciences

1. A few sentences about your current career path.

              I am currently an Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) Officer at the CDC, assigned to the National Center on Birth Defects & Developmental Disabilities. EIS is a highly competitive 2-year post-graduate fellowship in applied epidemiology that was established by the CDC in 1951. EIS officers help public health officials investigate disease outbreaks and respond to public health threats both in the U.S. and internationally. As an EIS officer, I primarily investigate matters related to pediatric mental health. Additionally, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC activated an agency-wide emergency response to this threat to public health. As a trained biostatistician and epidemiologist, I have provided support to the COVID-19 response through deployments to the State, Tribal, Local, and Territorial Support task force, the International task force and the Health Systems and Worker Safety task force. I have investigated different public health topics including COVID-19 mitigation measures and how they are tracked, long-term symptoms following COVID-19 diagnosis, and pediatric COVID-19-related hospitalizations during July-August 2021, when the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, circulated widely in the U.S.         

              My work has resulted in publications in journals such as the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report Journal (MMWR, impact factor 58.8), and also informed public health action. For example, data from the pediatrics hospitalizations study, published in a December 2021 issue of the MMWR, has since been used to guide clinical care and vaccine recommendations. Specifically, results from the MMWR were directly communicated to the Advisory Committee of Immunization Practices (ACIP) and the FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) to inform decision-making for COVID-19 immunizations for children ages 0-4 years. Additionally, the pediatrics hospitalization study met a very important need for the COVID-19 Treatment Guidelines Panel at the National Institutes of Health that is responsible for developing treatment guidelines for pediatric patients.            

              After EIS, I plan to continue to support disease surveillance and prevention efforts both in the U.S. and internationally. My long-term goal is to help build research, analytic and programmatic capacity in resource-limited settings through collaborations with relevant stakeholders to improve the sustainability of public health efforts in such settings.


2. How did the Mount’s chemistry and natural sciences department and/or any co-op experiences you’ve had here play a role in your career path?

              The Mount experience, in general, shaped my career path, and I am eternally grateful to all the people that I crossed paths with while at the Mount, especially individuals at the Chemistry and Natural Sciences Department. Although my major was biochemistry, the Mount's liberal arts and sciences education challenged me to think about other life issues such as spirituality and philosophy. The rigorous curriculum at the Chemistry and Natural Sciences Department prepared me for the academic and professional rigor that I later experienced during my master’s and Ph.D. programs and now as an EIS officer. One experience, specifically, taught me about how to face failure. I had taken a biology exam and missed getting an A grade by one point. I went to the instructor's office sobbing like it was the end of the world. When the instructor (Dr. Reed) found out why I was crying, she had a real talk with me about recognizing what failure really is, and the importance of getting up, dusting myself off and keeping on whenever I fall. There have been instances in my life and career when I have faced failure, and I often draw from this and other experiences that have taught me that failure is not a terminal thing, but rather an opportunity to try again and be better.


3. Anything else you would like to add about the Mount?

              The Mount was my first home in the U.S., the first place I experienced all the four weather seasons that I had only read about in books, and the place where I made my first, and so far only, snow angel. From the moment I walked through the sliding doors leading to the admissions office, I knew I would be in good hands despite being thousands of miles away from home and family back in Kenya. I would like to thank Peggy Minnich and all the Mount admissions staff who made sure that I felt at home, and to the orientation team, that I later joined in my second year, for the amazing activities they always planned during orientation (including the mechanical bull riding they had during my first year which I recall finding so strange). Much thank you to Sister Mary Bookser for her spiritual guidance and the residence life team (Tim Bessler, Margie Ciulla, and others) for their exemplary leadership in helping me navigate living on campus and being a resident assistant. My first work-study jobs were at the dining hall, the maintenance department, and with campus security. I thank all the individuals I worked with there, who always made me feel like I belonged. A special thank you to the late Tim Reibling (Papa Tim), who worked at the college front desk with me and taught me (with a tremendous amount of patience) how to drive a car.

              Much, much appreciation to all my fellow students and the faculty at the Chemistry and Natural Sciences Department. Special shout out to my classmate and forever friend Eucabeth, who flew with me all the way from Kenya and provided an endless supply of comfort to me, especially in the moments when I felt homesick. A special thank you to Dr. Diana Davis for being my champion and for her outstanding mentorship as my academic advisor during and after my time at the Mount. Another special and humorous thank you to Dr. Mark Fischer for always putting a smile on my face by gracefully sliding into class during our physics lessons and entertaining the space heaters that Eucabeth and I brought to class to keep us warm during the winters. A huge thank you to Dr. Christa Currie for making learning analytical chemistry fun and stress-free. I am also grateful to Dr. Eric Johnson for introducing me to Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) Imaging; working with him shaped my success as a laboratory assistant at the first job I took after graduating from the Mount.


4. Any advice for current students?

              The main advice I would give is to be flexible and to keep an open mind in life. When I came to the Mount, my only goal was to go to medical school. However, through exposure to multiple other fields, I learned that I wanted to do work that would have a population-level impact, which is how I ended up becoming an epidemiologist. The path to become an epidemiologist was not without a few twists and turns, and it was only through being flexible that I arrived at my current destination. The journey is not final for me, and I continue to be open to discovering more about myself and ways in which I can contribute to improving health outcomes for the populations that I serve.


If you are interested in pursuing a career in the biochemical field like Valentine check out the Mount’s Department of Chemistry and Physical Sciences to learn more.