Doing epidemiology at the FDA
For this week’s column, I talked to Michael Bazaco, an epidemiologist at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition to learn about the path he took to work at the agency on outbreaks of infectious diseases and foodborne pathogens.
Bazaco earned his bachelor’s degree in biology at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, where he focused on microbiology and developed a specific interest in applied microbiology. When he was an undergraduate, he worked in a lab that studied foodborne pathogens.
After graduating, he went to work at an infectious disease lab at a hospital and then took a contract position in pathogenic microbiology. He then decided to return to Virginia Tech to pursue his master’s degree: “Specifically, in food microbiology, in the same program, with the same professor I had worked with as an undergrad.” He worked on environmental sampling procedures for Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella and Campylobacter.
After earning his master’s degree, Bazaco spent six months as a post-graduate researcher focusing on food safety, biosecurity and teaching.
Then he earned his Ph.D. in epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. “I worked in microbiology lab, mostly working with hospital-acquired infections like Acinetobacter, Clostridium difficile and (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), as well as vaccine-preventable diseases like Neisseria meningitidis,” he said.
His dissertation, though, focused on a totally different aspect of epidemiology: the intersection of social and community cohesiveness and adolescent physical activity.
“I got accepted into the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition's Office of Analytics and Outreach, spent around seven years there and moved to the Coordinated Outbreak and Evaluation Network. I've basically been at the FDA in two different offices under two different management groups for almost eight years now, and I really enjoy it," he said.
His main role as an epidemiologist is to “look at foodborne outbreaks as a whole," he said. "The FDA regulates a certain part of the food supply; we deal with the outbreaks that fall under our jurisdiction."
His team uses data from past outbreaks to inform subsequent outbreak investigations and prevent future outbreaks. It cooperates with other federal agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, local health agencies, and international agencies.
“Sometimes the FDA will take the lead on an outbreak. Other times the CDC or state officials will take the lead, and the FDA will assist. All partners work together to find the cause of the outbreak and come up with the best way to stop the outbreak and prevent future ones,” he said.
In addition to working full time at the FDA, Bazaco has been an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland for more than five years. He teaches undergraduate courses on epidemiology and infectious diseases in the evenings.
“I really enjoy teaching. It gives me one night a week to work with students and impart some of my own knowledge from my background to them," he said.
Though he has always found teaching rewarding, Bazaco said, he knew pretty early on that he didn't want to be an academic researcher. "I always kind of knew I wanted to go the FDA, CDC or (National Institutes of Health) or maybe a think tank or a consulting firm," he said. "I just wasn't particularly interested in just research. I wanted to do some applied work (such as) outbreak response."
Bazaco said that the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of epidemiologists who work outside of academia, and he emphasized that the “epidemiology skillset is heavily needed and very useful” for studies of cancer and chronic diseases and for conducting clinical trials.
Investigating public health careers
Public health is a multidisciplinary field that connects the physical and social sciences to ensure the safety and health of all people.
Public health scientists come from many disciplines, including molecular biology, microbiology, occupational health and toxicology. These experts use their knowledge of science and technical and analytical skills to identify and monitor threats, promote public awareness and prevent or stop the spread of diseases.
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Beata Mierzwa is a postdoctoral researcher at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research at the University of California, San Diego. She is also an artist with a growing science art brand.