This past July, CDR Lauren Zapata and CDR Jennifer Verani, two officers in the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), were recognized by President Obama for the 2011 Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). The PECASE is the highest recognition awarded to those with five or less years of experience who have shown outstanding performance in their postgraduate research profession. While both CDRs came to the USPHS through epidemiology, their work has taken different and highly influential paths. While CDR Zapata and CDR Verani have clearly already achieved many outstanding accomplishments in their fields, they remain excited and inspired by their recent recognition to strive for continued developments in science and research both domestically and around the world.
CDR Zapata is a senior research scientist in the Women’s Health and Fertility Branch of the Division of Reproductive Health at the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. CDR Zapata focuses on prevention and awareness, combining her two interests of science and data research into one passion. Her work, both domestic and international, has centered on the improvement of family planning systems and women and children’s health. CDR Verani is a pediatrician and medical epidemiologist in the Respiratory Disease Branch of the CDC, passionate about the powerful and transformative role epidemiology can play in improving lives. Most recently, she has worked on the prevention of pneumonia and neonatal sepsis among children.
CDR Lauren Zapata
CDR Lauren Zapata, Commissioned Corps recipient of the 2011 PECASE award.
CDR Zapata, who credits the success of her early career accomplishments to the mentorship provided to her by two other Commissioned Corp officers, calls the presidential recognition “a humbling experience.” Having both family and career responsibilities, CDR Zapata finds the recognition gratifying, as there have been times when she notes the difficulty in “having it all.” As a mother with three young children, this award has shown her that “you can have, and excel, in both work and family.”
After receiving her PhD in behavioral sciences from the College of Public Health, University of South Florida, CDR Zapata first learned about the Commissioned Corps when she accepted a position at the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) Program. After discussing the benefits of joining the USPHS with a friend who was already a Commissioned Corps officer, she decided to join for some of the many opportunities that come with being an officer: the chance at unique deployments and the ability to network and meet other officers. “After being presented with the option [when she signed up for EIS], it was a quick turnaround for me to make my decision,” says CDR Zapata.
Seven years later, CDR Zapata still relishes the opportunity to serve her country as an officer of the Commissioned Corps. Her first deployment was for emergency assistance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, an experience she describes as both “sad and exciting.” For her, the chance to make a visible difference in the evacuation and restoration efforts at a time of crisis was a rare opportunity that came along with being a Corps officer. Her second deployment, in response to the BP Gulf oil spill, was also an occasion to contribute her much needed data-specific skills to facilitate the cleanup.
CDR Zapata describes the experience of a Commissioned Corps officer as “a chance to build one’s own experience.” CDR Zapata will be the first to say that the commitment involves plenty of work and effort; but, the ability to be a part of a group bigger than oneself and “to work with those who share your values, commitments, and experiences” represents an invaluable opportunity. Despite the time responsibilities, CDR Zapata is a testament to the Corps’ recognition of the importance of a work-life balance while serving. Commitments such as deployments are structured to allow for planning and flexibility, even for a busy working mother of three.
CDR Jennifer Verani
CDR Jennifer Verani, Commissioned Corps recipient of the 2011 PECASE award.
CDR Jennifer Verani first got involved in the study of public health when she was in high school. Her interest in public health was solidified while working at the CDC, where she performed research as a medical student participating in a CDC epidemiology elective. While assisting on a study of gastrointestinal parasites in patients infected with HIV in Lima, Peru, she “was enchanted by the ability to transform a public health problem into a research question, then into a study design, next into data, and ultimately into evidence that can guide policy decisions.”
After obtaining her medical degree from Harvard Medical School and her MPH in International Health from the Harvard School of Public Health, CDR Verani joined the CDC as an EIS officer in the Parasitic Diseases Branch. According to CDR Verani, the appeal of the Commissioned Corps was “being a part of the public health movement that could respond to situations and take action in crisis.”
And take action she has: Since 2006, CDR Verani has traveled across the country and the globe responding to outbreaks from San Antonio to the Dominican Republic.
While being a Commissioned Corps officer differs from Federal civilian work, CDR Verani finds her work with the USPHS “very integrated” into her every day work at the CDC. CDR Verani states that the biggest honor of her work is “the service to country and the chance to work with those who are trained and eager to respond when needed.” She calls her recent recognition by President Obama “a praise for science” and a huge encouragement not only to her, but to all those she works with.