In the Field | At the Center of the COVID-19 Response
As a CDC scientist, Christina Carlson uses her cellular and molecular biology expertise to help manage the coronavirus pandemic
While most of us have been doing our best to avoid contact with the novel coronavirus, Christina Carlson MS’08, PhD’13 has been in the thick of it. As a Laboratory Leadership Service (LLS) fellow for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), she’s been working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Carlson grew up in Balsam Lake, Wisconsin, and those small-town, rural roots influenced her interest in science. “I spent a lot of time outdoors and developed an early and lasting fascination with nearly every aspect of the natural world,” she says.
As an undergraduate, Carlson attended the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, where she discovered her true passion: cellular and molecular biology. She continued exploring the field with master’s and doctoral degrees from CALS and a UW master’s degree in public health.
It was during her time at UW that Carlson first encountered the CDC program she would eventually join. She was captivated by the work they performed — from emergency outbreak response and surveillance to technical assistance and support.
“I couldn’t help but imagine how rewarding it might be to someday apply my scientific knowledge and skills to positively impact human health on a population-wide level, within and beyond the laboratory,” Carlson says. Fittingly, that is exactly what she’s up to now.
Carlson began her tenure as an LLS fellow in 2018 at the Malaria Laboratory Research and Development Unit at CDC headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. When the COVID-19 pandemic reached the United States, her focus switched to the coronavirus. She was deployed three times — to California, Illinois, and Washington State — to provide laboratory operations and overall support during the missions.
“I served as the laboratory team lead,” Carlson says. “While the title remained the same, the missions and responsibilities were different for each deployment.”
In California, Carlson worked with around 200 individuals who arrived from Wuhan, China, at the end of January. She helped coordinate the collection, transport, processing, shipping, and testing of specimens they provided. While she was there, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services ordered the first mandatory federal quarantine on U.S. soil in more than 50 years.
In March, the CDC sent Carlson to Chicago, where she and her team performed contact tracing in response to COVID-19 cases associated with travel. She conducted risk assessments for health care workers and made recommendations about work restrictions. After only four days — the COVID-19 situation was constantly in flux — they headed to Washington state, where cases were on the rise. There, through the end of March, they provided field epidemiology and laboratory support for the Seattle & King County and Washington State departments of health as they investigated COVID-19 outbreaks in nursing and long-term
“I found outbreak response work to be simultaneously the most rewarding, frustrating, and humbling work I’ve ever tackled,” Carlson says. “Response work sometimes feels small and minimally impactful. But those small improvements can build incrementally into greater public health impacts over time.”
Carlson recalls lessons from her time as a student at CALS that still influence her today. For instance, her Ph.D. thesis advisor, soil science professor Joel Pedersen, regularly pushed her to think beyond sometimes rigid biological perspectives, she says. This helped her learn how to adapt to unfamiliar and complex situations — a skill she put to good use during her COVID-19 deployments.
“Christina was an exceptional student — highly motivated, articulate, intelligent, and conscientious,” Pedersen says. “She exercised good judgment in where she invested her efforts, in the interpretation of her results, and in evaluating the work of others.”
Carlson plans to stay with the CDC to support the COVID-19 response. And when her work there is done, she hopes to continue as a public health laboratory scientist, in part due to the inspiration of her recent experiences.
“As much as my COVID-19 deployment experiences have forced me to face difficult truths and tragedies,” Carlson says, “they have also left me with an unexpected sense of optimism about the world around me.”This article was posted in Fall 2020, Health and Wellness, In the Field, Working Life and tagged CDC, cellular and molecular biology, Christina Carlson, COVID-19, Joel Pedersen, pandemic response.