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International Health

Jessica Atwell, MPH ‘11

PhD candidate, Global Disease Epidemiology and Control

Jessica Atwell’s career in public health has already taken her around the globe working on infectious disease issues. And her many accomplishments as a master’s and doctoral student exemplifies not only the quality of Hopkins students, but also our faculty’s commitment to the development of the next generation of researchers and global health leaders. 

As a microbiologist at the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), Jessica worked on the laboratory side of vaccine preventable disease investigations. She became increasingly interested in infectious disease epidemiology and understanding how to prevent and control disease. She therefore decided to find a master’s program that would give her the additional experience and training required for this career change. “As a student interested in both infectious diseases and vaccines, I felt that Hopkins had more to offer than other schools of public health. I was excited about the opportunity to complete specific coursework in vaccine science and policy.” 

Jessica Atwell
Jessica Atwell, back row, 3rd from right, and her epidemiology workshop students. Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research, Yagaum, Madang Province.

During a seminar by Associate Professor Dan Salmon, PhD ‘03—then Director of Vaccine Safety at the National Vaccine Program Office—she became interested in the impact of vaccine refusal. “I knew I wanted to do something involving pertussis because I had just left CDPH in the middle of an unprecedented outbreak and had been working on it directly in the lab.” After speaking with former colleagues, she was able to obtain data from California to conduct an analysis looking at the effect of refusal rates on the outbreak. The research project brought together her MPH advisor Professor Neal Halsey, the California Department of Public Health, Dr. Salmon, and alumnus Saad Omer, PhD ’07, who had conducted a similar study on refusal rates in Michigan. 

Not only did she receive the Capstone Award for Outstanding Achievement, news organizations such as NPR and ABC reported on the study results showing refusals had played a significant role in the 2010 outbreak. It’s very rewarding to see a student investigate an issue like vaccine refusal and have an immediate impact on public health practice and policy,” says Salmon. From the development through dissemination she felt supported by the Hopkins network of faculty and alumni:

I had never been interviewed like this before, and Drs. Salmon and Halsey gave me great advice on how to interact with the reporters, how to get the important messages across.

Before returning to Hopkins for her PhD, Jessica interned at GAVI Alliance in Geneva in the Policy and Performance Group. She worked directly with the director of the monitoring and evaluation unit, alumnus Peter Hansen, PhD ’08, who gave her great advice on managing her doctoral studies. Jessica credits the Certificate in Vaccine Science and Policy program for her relatively easy transition at GAVI. In fact, she was a co-author on the widely cited paper in Vaccine, The estimated mortality impact of vaccinations forecast to be administered during 2011-2020 in 73 countries supported by the GAVI Alliance.

Jessica is now working in Papua New Guinea on an infectious disease project under her advisor Professor Ruth Karron. Overall their project is investigating how malaria and other infections in pregnancy impact the transfer of antibodies from mothers to their fetuses, and how this might impact the immune system of the infant in early life. They’re also trying to better understand the scope of respiratory infections among children in this setting. The work will be the basis for her dissertation topic, “The Impact of Placental Malaria on Active and Passive Immunization in Papua New Guinea.”

“This study will hopefully help answer some important questions we have about the potential to use maternal immunization to protect infants from respiratory infections like RSV and influenza in areas where malaria is still a problem,” Jessica explains. The project is a collaboration with Case Western, University of Melbourne, and the Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research. To help build in-country capacity, Jessica drew on her experience as a TA for the core MPH “Principles of Epidemiology” course to develop and teach an epidemiology workshop for PNG scientific officers. “As a student, I’ve received such great support and mentorship from Hopkins faculty, such as Drs. Halsey, Salmon, and Karron. I’m eager now to return the favor by passing on epidemiology and data analysis skills to young scientists here at the PNG Institute of Medical Research,” Jessica adds. She’ll be returning to Baltimore later this year and will finish up her PhD work in 2015. 

«More information about the PNG Institute of Medical Research»