March 1, 2017
“Most adults do not even know what epidemiology is, but at the age of 12 I knew I wanted to get a degree in epidemiology and have never wavered,” says master’s student Danielle Sill of when she first learned about epidemiology careers from her pastor’s niece who had earned a degree in the field. “Epidemiology was perfect in the fact that it allowed me the opportunity to be curious and question science that was already available to try and understand how diseases arise and then prevent exposures or take other preventive measures that could decrease disease incidence.”
Sill took the first major steps toward her future career while studying biology and emerging global diseases at Iowa State University. A summer trip to Ghana played an important role in cementing the Gurnee, Ill. native’s decision to pursue public health as a career. “I knew epidemiology was my calling when I interned with a public health organization to help reduce hypertension in villages surrounding Cape Coast and educate the citizens on prevalent diseases in their area,” Sill says.
For two years during her undergraduate program, Sill gained critical experience in food safety, environmental health, and infectious diseases in an applied setting. As an undergraduate research assistant in a plant pathology and microbiology laboratory, Sill immersed herself in combatting the soybean cyst nematode, a parasitic roundworm responsible for wreaking havoc on this particular cash crop by attacking the plants’ roots and causing them to die.
Working with the other researchers, Sill discovered that the nematode was damaging the soybean plants’ immune system in the same way as a Malaria parasite attacks the immune system of humans and other animals. They were able to create genetically modified soybean roots, which were resistant to the nematode.
“This was a step in the right direction for farmers that didn’t involve using pesticides but instead used genetically modified plants that could evade nematode invasion,” says Sill. This research project resulted in a co-authored publication in New Phytologist and taught Sill about the pathways of parasites within plants while perfecting her ability to perform molecular laboratory procedures—techniques which she could then apply on other types of cells.
This experience helped prepare her for her work as an Acute Disease Epidemiology Graduate Assistant at the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) during her graduate program at the Arnold School. Sill mostly works with enteric illnesses, collecting data and identifying patterns related to norovirus (NoroStat) and foodborne (FoodCore) outbreaks for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She has identified the place or food of exposure in multiple state- and national-level Salmonella outbreaks. Sill has also taught nurses and epidemiologists in various DHEC regions about best practices to use when conducting food surveys with Salmonella patients.
Scheduled to graduate in May with a Master of Science in Public Health in Epidemiology, Sill chose the Arnold School because she was looking for programs that integrate infectious disease into their curriculum. She also investigated the faculty to determine if her research interests aligned. She found overlaps with Clinical Assistant Professor Myriam Torres, who became an important mentor for Sill.
“My entire time at USC, Dr. Torres has been so welcoming to my ideas and has helped me through my academic program,” Sill says. “She is a faculty member who has paved a way for herself, and she maintains her positive attitude and does not let things get to her.”
Another critical mentor is Adjunct Associate Professor Eric Brenner, who taught Sill the infectious diseases course that solidified her passion for the specialty. He also helped her prepare for her role at DHEC.
“Dr. Brenner is one of the most knowledgeable people when it comes to infectious diseases and expanded my knowledge from enteric illnesses to infectious illnesses of all types,” says Sill. “Hearing about all of the conferences he has been able to attend and his work with the WHO and CDC has helped shape my love for infectious diseases.”
Working for DHEC’s Foodborne Outbreak Epidemiologist David Young has also been instrumental to Sill’s development—particularly his guidance in applying what she’s learned from her coursework to her graduate assistantship. “I feel as if David has helped shape my knowledge of outbreak situations and enteric illnesses and is someone I can bounce ideas off of to help with my understanding on foodborne illnesses,” she says.
When selecting a graduate program, Sill has some advice. She recommends researching faculty and staff backgrounds (as she did) to look for overlapping interests—in both research and professional experience. She also suggests choosing thesis and practicum areas carefully to ensure that efforts are spent on these topics that are both interesting and beneficial to preparing for future work.
After her graduation, Sill intends to put her degree and experiences to work within the communicable diseases division of a state health department or at a university. The Dance Marathon volunteer and frequent runner also plans to continue applying what she’s learned to her own health.
“Much of what we learn about diseases in epidemiology is that diet and exercise can serve as prevention tactics,” Sill says. “By running and staying fit, my classmates and I have been able to live as examples and practice what we preach.”