Preparing for the Unpredictable: A Discussion with Dr. Katz on her Career in Global Health Security Blog Post
By Meera Parikh
On Tuesday, the Conversations in Global Health class hosted Dr. Rebecca Katz, professor and the Director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University. While she currently works on the intersection between global health, technology, and security, she spent her undergraduate years studying political science and economics at Swarthmore University. However, after developing an infection while volunteering in India, Katz found herself studying Brucella melitensis instead. “When you have a rare infection, you have to become your own expert,” Dr. Katz cited as her sudden interest in the bacteria. As she simultaneously pursued a Masters in Public Health at Yale University in Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Dr. Katz personally experienced disease at the patient level. This was one of many seemingly coincidental events in her career path.
As she researched more about Brucella, she found a lot of literature about bioweapons—this was because Brucella was a possible bioterrorism agent in the 1950s. She began thinking about the intersection between disease and technology, which lead her to develop a thesis proposal about public health and national security. At the time, most Ph.D. programs were not interested in her research, however she was finally offered a spot at Princeton University. And then another coincidence occurred. On September 10, 2001, Dr. Katz turned in her thesis on public health security, one day before America’s security faced a major threat. Suddenly, the ideas she presented in her paper became issues of national concern. In 2004, Dr. Katz began consulting for the Department of State, while concurrently conducting global health security research at the George Washington University. Four years ago, she moved her research team to Georgetown University, where she currently works.
While listening to Dr. Katz’s career path, I began to wonder, does the job that I will have in five or ten years exist yet? How do I plan for the future, when so many people stumble into their careers through a combination of chance and life experience? In the fleeting moment that I considered these ideas, the conversation shifted to 2019-nCoV, the novel Coronavirus.
In response to the question “Are we better prepared to deal with pandemics?” Dr. Katz offered a simultaneously optimistic and ominous response: “Yes, but not enough.” She explained that while we have improved infrastructure and adherence to the International Health Regulations, it is impossible to keep up with nature. China has revised their disease surveillance systems and been more transparent about the 2019-nCoV than they were with SARS, but there are still critical questions about the pathogen that are unanswered. The scary, yet fascinating thing about the outbreak is that it is both an issue of the present and the future, and we need to keep both in mind as we develop interventions. After the WHO failed to declare the 2019 Ebola outbreak a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) in time, I thought that they would not do the same with this outbreak. But after hearing Dr. Katz elaborate on the political, social, and economic implications of declaring a PHEIC, I realized how nuanced the pandemic response is. I see the same ideas echoed in her recommendations for Global Health Diplomacy in which public health and policy experts must work together to determine the best interventions. Global health issues have no borders, so it takes an international, interdisciplinary team to solve them. Despite all the chaos and fear that pandemics cause, there are researchers, like Dr. Katz, who do their best to prepare for them. And while my career probably won’t follow a linear trajectory, I too can prepare for the unpredictable.
Meera Parikh (NHS ‘22) is a second-year undergraduate student studying Global Health.