Jay Vornhagen is 2017 graduate of the Pathobiology PhD program at the University of Washington Department of Global Health. He is currently completing a postdoc with Lakshmi Rajagopal at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. During his tenure at UW he published more than any other student since the Pathobiology program began in 1990. Jay received a Graduate Discovery Fellowship to work at the Centers for Disease Control from January-March, 2017 with Mary Kamb, Associate Director for Global Activities in the Division of STD Prevention.

By Jay Vornhagen

Stepping into the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Emergency Operations Center in Atlanta makes you feel like a kid. A field of lacquered wood dotted by computer monitor trees spread before a sky of news, weather, and population health information gives a sense of simultaneous smallness and status.

You know that you are in a place where important work is happening, and once the wonderment passes, you want to roll up your sleeves and jump in the sandbox. Whether it was looking out over Stone Mountain from the office of CDC Director Anne Schuchat, discussing intervention measures with the Division of STD Prevention, or working toward a better understanding the global disease burden, I frequently felt this youthful excitement during my time there.

I spent three months at the CDC’s Division of STD Prevention in the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention. I aided in the development and characterization of new diagnostic platforms for disease surveillance in pregnant women, evaluated the efficacy of current syphilis diagnostics, and searched for predictors of adverse pregnancy outcomes for pregnant women in Malawi. Additionally, I explored the biological underpinnings of syphilis diagnostic efficacy during pregnancy, where my work may help to better differentiate active and historical syphilis infection. Our team worked to optimize a new diagnostic platform that will use a single patient sample to both identify and measure multiple infections such as HIV, syphilis, hepatitis, rubella, and herpes. This work is continuing at the CDC, and I hope it will form the basis of a new frontier of infectious disease diagnostics and surveillance, where we can streamline efforts in order to generate information faster and more effectively.

As with all scientific endeavors, my projects were met with variable success. However, my most valuable experience was gaining the perspective of what it is like to work at the CDC. The most striking insight I took away is the ability of scientists to shape and create public policy. The science generated in studies performed at academic and nonacademic institutions clearly informs policymaking at the CDC, and these policies directly affect human lives. We are in a world where the viewpoints of a relatively small number of individual politicians can have drastic and real consequences on research and policymaking. To successfully improve population health, advocacy and clear communication about policies and decision-making from scientists and public health institutions is critical. The most important takeaway from this time, which I would advise any graduate student to practice, is to communicate clearly, confidently, and don’t be afraid to approach every day with an open mind, positive attitude, and desire to learn. I plan on taking this first-hand experience with me as my career progresses.

My experience at the CDC through the Graduate Discovery Fellowship was overwhelmingly positive, and fulfilled a long-standing dream of mine. I want to extend special thanks to Susan Barnes and Guy Tribble for allowing me to have this experience and thanks to UW School of Medicine for awarding me this fellowship.


Funding for the Graduate Discovery Fellowships program was made possible by a special gift to the UW School of Medicine from Dr. Guy L. Tribble and Susan Barnes. Tribble completed his MD and PhD in physiology and biophysics at the UW. Graduate Discovery Fellowships provide funded opportunities for individual PhD students to explore diverse opportunities independent of their UW mentor and graduate program. To learn more about how philanthropy can fuel and sustain this important work, please contact Christopher S. Thompson, Senior Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations, UW Medicine Advancement, csthomp@uw.edu, 206.543.8203.