Alumna investigates infectious diseases to save lives
October 26, 2017
After a nine and a half hour canoe ride, Jennifer McQuiston arrived in a village in the Republic of Congo so remote that a Google search doesn’t recognize its name.
In August, she was part of a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that camped there for a few weeks, tracking animals in a nearby jungle for blood and other samples. They were investigating the origin of monkeypox, a virus first detected in African monkeys and characterized by skin lesions.
“It’s the closest thing we have right now to smallpox,” said McQuiston, an epidemiologist and deputy director of the Division of High Consequence Pathogens and Pathology, located within the CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases.
McQuiston, a Virginia Tech alumna, often is on the front lines of infectious disease investigations, specifically zoonotic diseases that are spread between animals and humans.
She led a CDC team that discovered brown dog ticks spreading Rocky Mountain spotted fever among American Indian tribes in Arizona and developed ways to protect dogs from carrying the ticks. She also deployed twice to West Africa for the Ebola epidemic, and monitored possible bioterrorism threats in New York City in the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001.
“I love that what I’m doing helps a whole population of people,” she said. “I love knowing what I do saves lives.”
McQuiston will discuss the origins of emerging infections at a summit in Washington, D.C., for the Virginia Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on Oct. 30. She joins a host of national experts who will talk about everything from the history of Zika virus and the Ebola epidemic to bioterrorism pathogens and a vaccine for HIV/AIDS.
The nonprofit academy offers nonpartisan expertise in science, engineering, and medicine, and promotes related research.
X.J. Meng, a University Distinguished Professor of Molecular Virology at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech, chaired the summit’s organizing committee and invited McQuiston to speak.
“Dr. McQuiston’s expertise as a veterinarian and her unique insight and perspective on the animal sources of emerging infections will be invaluable to the summit attendees,” he said.
McQuiston, also a captain in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, is a sought-out speaker who travels around the world to help respond to disease threats and to discuss her work and experiences.
Recently, she spoke in Quebec, Canada, about CDC’s role in emergency responses, and soon she will speak about vaccines for zoonotic diseases in San Antonio, Texas. In between, she will visit middle school students in New York to discuss the book “Fever 1793,” which features a yellow fever outbreak in 18th century Philadelphia.
“You need to know who your audience is,” McQuiston said. “If I’m speaking to a group of scientists, details about research and data are important. When I speak to the general public, I try to make it appealing to them. Stories are a really important part of it.”
With 19 years at the CDC under her belt, McQuiston has many stories to tell.
When she arrived at Virginia Tech as a freshman from Elkton, Virginia, she wanted to become a veterinarian. But she became fascinated with microbiology during a course on the subject her sophomore year. Her professor, George William Claus, now an associate professor emeritus of biological sciences, encouraged her to explore the field further.
Also, during a public health course taught by Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine professor Kevin Pelzer, McQuiston learned about treating animals and helping farmers to stop disease outbreaks.
She said Pelzer gave her invaluable advice as she began to consider a career in epidemiology.
McQuiston, who was one of the founders of Virginia Tech’s student chapter of the American Society for Microbiology, earned a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1993, and four years later, a doctor of veterinary medicine. The next year, in 1998, she also earned a master’s degree in molecular biology at Virginia Tech.
After graduation, McQuiston entered a two-year program with the CDC to train epidemiologists to conduct disease outbreak investigations in the field.
Once the program ended, she stayed on at the CDC as an epidemiologist.
In her current role, she helps to lead a division focused on tracking lethal viruses and bacterial outbreaks, such as Ebola, anthrax, and smallpox. It houses one of few labs in the world that investigates smallpox.
McQuiston also helps direct public communications for the division.
Daily, she said she uses aspects of what she learned from her Virginia Tech professors.
“In order to do well in the field of public health disease detective work, you have to have the clinical interest, the microbiology interest, and you have to have the human interest,” she said. “I love being a public servant.”
McQuiston lives in Atlanta with her two children and her husband, John McQuiston, a Virginia Tech alumnus who leads the special bacteriology reference laboratory at the CDC.
Aside from her infectious disease work, McQuiston recently closed a chapter on an unrelated avocation - for now.
She is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of seven Victorian-era historical romance novels. Her latest book was published last year.
Though novel writing is her creative outlet, she is taking a break from it due to the demands of her CDC job. She said she may return to romance writing in retirement.
Previously, McQuiston rose at 4 a.m. daily to write her books before her family awoke.
“I am enjoying getting eight hours of sleep now,” she said.
Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone