Meet Dr. Amy Watson, full-time senior service fellow and self-proclaimed “helicopter mom.”Posted on by
Dr. Amy Watson works in the Emergency Response Branch of the Division of Laboratory Sciences, National Center for Environmental Health at CDC.
An early love of science
Both of Amy’s parents were teachers. Her father, a science teacher who was very involved in her education, instilled in Amy a lifelong love of science.
Her father’s hobby was making scuppernong grape wine to give as gifts, and one of Amy’s favorite stories about him is “when he did my 6th grade science project: distilling homemade wine. You know, using a homemade distillery. For a 12-year old,” she laughed.
He showed Amy a unique way to know when fermenting was done. “There’s a gas that emits when you ferment wine, so he taught me to put a balloon over the bottle that would inflate when the fermentation process was complete.”
Amy described her father as a “helicopter parent,” always hovering, but lovingly, especially over her education.
Amy majored in chemistry and went to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, a historically black college in Greensboro, North Carolina. She went to Georgia State University for her master’s and Ph.D. in chemistry, specifically choosing those universities because she knew early on that she wanted to work at CDC.
“Even though I wasn’t sure how to apply working at CDC to a chemistry background … a public health/chemistry background—that was always what I wanted. I became more interested in having an impact in public health, and that was how I fell into the interest with CDC.”
She started working for CDC right out of graduate school in2008, as a contractor in the laboratory of the Clinical Chemistry Branch, Division of Laboratory Sciences (DLS) for two years. She then went to CDC’s Center for Global Health, and worked in the International Lab Branch there for four years. Since her return to DLS in 2014, she has worked in its Emergency Response Branch (ERB).
ERB develops and performs unique laboratory tests to assess chemical exposure during a public health emergency or presumed terrorist event. Amy is the program coordinator for the Laboratory Response Network Chemical section. She helps coordinate the related operations of 54 network laboratories, located all across the country. “We have one in every state, three major cities, and Puerto Rico.”
Amy is also the laboratory subject matter expert (SME) for the Public Health Emergency Preparedness (PHEP) Cooperative Agreement. PHEP supports Public Health Preparedness Capabilities: National Standards for State and Local Planning. (See callout box for additional information.) “The SME work I’m doing is specifically for capability twelve, the lab capability, that includes public health threat testing, like cyanide,” Amy explains.
The ERB in DLS helms the Laboratory Response Network Chemical Section (LRN-C), which supports local government chemical emergency response capabilities. Amy helps to coordinate that effort. “We also give guidance and help to ensure best practices for emergency response programs.”
There are three levels for the 54 network laboratories:
- Ten labs are Level 3. All 54 labs have level 3 capacity. These labs work with hospitals and other first responders.
- Thirty-four labs are Level 2. Chemists in these labs are trained to detect exposure to several toxic chemicals.
- Ten labs are Level 1. These labs are able to detect not only the toxic chemicals that Level 2 labs can, but also exposure to chemicals including mustard gas, nerve agents like sarin, and other toxic industrial chemicals. Level 1 labs expand CDC’s ability to analyze large numbers of patient samples when responding to large-scale exposure incidents.
“I provide programmatic support to all 54 LRN-C labs, ensuring that they are ready to respond,” says Amy.
To ensure operational readiness, the Laboratory Response Network engages in two mock outbreak exercises per year.
“One of our emergency response exercises is a part of our performance measures for the cooperative agreement. The other is specifically to ensure operational readiness: our Rapid Tox Screen,” Amy explains.
Rapid toxicology screen is a process that can identify more than 150 chemicals in blood and urine to help state public health departments respond to public health threat emergencies. Participants in the mock outbreak exercise analyze more than 8,000 test samples and report to medical and public health personnel.
“We just completed an exercise about a month ago,” Amy recalls. “The concept of that [mock] exercise was that someone set off a chemical release bomb in the Baltimore convention center. CDC had to mimic what we would do if people were having symptoms that were related to or could potentially be a chemical threat agent such as a nerve agent; Sarin, for example. We took 40 priority samples—clinical samples—blood and urine, to bring back from the Maryland State Public Health Laboratory to the CDC for a Rapid Tox Screen. Once that was completed, the second part of the exercise, surge capacity, was the following week, when we engage 10 LRN-C Level 1 labs to test their capacity to respond to a large-scale emergency.”
Surge capacity labs would be called in to assist when state or local health department labs have public health emergencies that they are not equipped to handle because of the sheer volume of possible or potential casualties. Surge capacity labs, which have expanded capacity and high threat input equipment, can prepare and analyze samples within 36 hours. The 10 Surge capacity labs are located in Florida, Virginia, South Carolina, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, California, New Mexico, New York, and Massachusetts.
Impact on Public Health
“Were it not for the standardized network capabilities of the public health preparedness program in each individual state,” Amy explains, “each state would need a separate program because every jurisdiction is unique.” For example, “Washington State has issues with saxitoxin-related deaths and illnesses, and Florida has marine toxins and plant toxins.” says Watson.
She gives another example: “We help multiple state labs respond to fentanyls and other opioids—the opioid epidemic. This is a critical public health threat. The equipment, staffing, expanded capability to develop testing methods quickly, that all comes from the work that we do with the Laboratory Response Network.”
“Our in-house method development work [at CDC] also is made available to the network, so SMEs can share our resources to the nation. And the Laboratory Response Network provides input to us,” she says, as an example of the comprehensive communication that is tested continuously.
Most rewarding aspects of job
“I really enjoy working with the Laboratory Response Network. I love the lab. I love science and how it makes sense,” Amy says with a smile. “Program work provides immediate gratification. I see the fruits of my labor, and I feel like I make a difference with people.”
“Meeting the people that we support are my favorite times,” she continued. “They’re public servants who take pride in being a part of supporting public health preparedness. You meet wonderful people at the state level—they’re kind of unsung heroes. So modest, but so sincere about the work.”
“I hate when people say this but it’s true,” Amy laughs. “I just run after my kids all weekend. I have a five-year-old daughter and a thirteen-year-old step-daughter, so we’re all very really busy with a lot of activities on the weekends. Lo and behold, I ended up being a helicopter parent myself.”
And like her helicopter Dad before her—“My father would be over the moon knowing that I’m working at CDC”—Amy is passing on the love of learning and science to the next generation. She is helping to inspire future public health scientists: her five year-old daughter talks about becoming a doctor, and her step-daughter wants to be an environmental health scientist.
So maybe hovering is a good thing.
CDC plays an important role in ensuring that state and local public health systems are prepared for potential public health incidents. CDC provides funding and technical assistance to state, local, and territorial public health departments through a Public Health Emergency Preparedness or PHEP cooperative agreement, which supports fifteen different capabilities. The Public Health Laboratory Testing Capability, for which Dr. Amy Watson serves as LRN-C Program Coordinator.
CDC funding supports 62 states, territories, and metropolitan areas through the PHEP cooperative agreement. The 54 laboratories within these jurisdictions, which provide emergency response capabilities for their local areas, the nation, or both, make up the chemical component of the Laboratory Response Network (LRN-C).
PHEP efforts support the U.S. National Response Framework (NRF), which guides how the nation responds to all types of emergency hazards including infectious disease outbreaks; natural disasters; biological, chemical, and radiological incidents; and explosions. The United States National Response Framework (NRF) is part of the National Strategy for Homeland Security that presents the guiding principles enabling all levels of domestic response partners to prepare for and provide a unified national response to disasters and emergencies. Building on the existing National Incident Management System (NIMS) as well as Incident Command System (ICS) standardization, the NRF’s coordinating structures are always in effect for implementation at any level and at any time for local, state, and national emergency or disaster response.