Meet the Outbreak Management Division at the Public Health Agency of Canada

The Outbreak Management Division (OMD) at the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) consists of a team of highly qualified individuals from different backgrounds that assess, detect and coordinate investigations of enteric illness outbreaks (e.g., Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria) occurring in multiple provinces and territories in Canada, or at least one province or territory and another country. The team works together with a number of other public health and food safety partners across the country, and internationally, to find the source of an outbreak in order to protect the health of Canadians.

The OMD team is largely made up of epidemiologists, who are the “disease detectives” that help prevent and protect Canadians from enteric illnesses. Let’s meet a few of these inspiring females:

Tanis Kershaw, Senior Epidemiologist, Outbreak Management Division

Tanis Kershaw has worked as an Epidemiologist at OMD for six years and is very passionate about the work she does. Tanis wasn’t always interested in the science industry; in fact, she had other careers in mind when she was younger, including lawyer, writer and even dolphin trainer (a less practical career growing up in Saskatchewan)!

She decided to study psychology at the University of Saskatchewan with the goal of becoming a clinical forensic psychologist. She struggled to find a job related to her field after graduation, but was fortunate to be offered a position with the Saskatoon Health Region as a Research Assistant in Public Health. At this job, she worked with several epidemiologists, one of whom who was a part of PHAC’s Canadian Field Epidemiology Program (CFEP) and this inspired her to want to apply to the program herself. Tanis went on to complete her Master of Public Health (MPH) degree at the University of Saskatchewan, while continuing to work full time at the Saskatoon Health Region. After completing her MPH, she obtained a position with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, where she continued to gain experience in epidemiology while applying to CFEP. Tanis was thrilled to be selected for CFEP Cohort 39 in 2013, which began the start of her career with the Federal Government. To this day, this is one of Tanis’ proudest accomplishments and she remembers her time as a Field Epidemiologist fondly.

At her current position as a Senior Epidemiologist, she is in charge of leading and coordinating multi-jurisdictional enteric outbreak investigations. One memorable outbreak she investigated was an E. coli outbreak that was found to be associated with flour, the first time this was identified in Canada! During the investigation, she described that the whole team worked tirelessly for almost three months trying to determine the source of the illnesses that were occurring.

Tanis explains, “It was like real detective work. We had a white board with every possible food and ingredient that could be the source of the outbreak. When we finally figured out flour was the cause of the illnesses, it was very rewarding, as our team’s hard work would prevent further illnesses in Canadians associated with this product.”

It took Tanis some time before she found her passion in epidemiology, so she encourages people to be open to opportunities and keep trying new things until you find your passion. Once you accept an opportunity, she says to remember to network and seek out people who have the job you’re interested in, there are many different jobs you can do as an epidemiologist!

Ashley Kerr, Senior Epidemiologist, Outbreak Management Division

Ashley Kerr, a proud mother of two, has been an epidemiologist at the OMD for seven years. Since she was young, Ashley was very interested in the natural world around her including plants, animals, space, and geography. Her love for science grew when her parents bought her a microscope when she was just in elementary school. Growing up she looked up to strong women in science like Dr. Roberta Bondar and Dr. Jane Goodall, aspiring to have a career in science.

Pursuing her passion, she studied Biological Sciences at the University of Guelph and then after volunteering in Africa, she returned to complete her Masters in Biomedical Sciences. During her Masters, she worked at PHAC as a Public Health Research Assistant supporting various systematic reviews and other knowledge syntheses. Taking courses in epidemiology and statistics, as well as working at PHAC, sparked her interest in the epidemiology field. With some hard work and networking, she was hired at the OMD.

As a senior epidemiologist, her role is to assess, detect, and respond to multi-jurisdictional outbreaks of enteric illness. Ashley has worked on both the Assessment and Detection team and the Response team at the OMD and loves how her job gives her the opportunity to connect and converse with various health professionals across Canada. She loves being a part of an intellectual community working towards a common goal, finding the source of an outbreak. More importantly, her favourite part of the job is being able to promote and protect the health of Canadians.

Throughout Ashley’s career, she has been able to work on some innovative projects. For example, a major project she worked on with many other amazing public health professionals was creating a resource called Foodbook.

Ashley explains, “Foodbook is a population based telephone survey that was conducted in all Canadian provinces and territories over a one-year period asking participants the types of food, water, and animal exposures they had over a seven-day period. My role was to support the study design and analyze the data collected. This project was memorable for me as this resource continues to be used to this day to inform timely and effective response to enteric illness outbreaks.”

For anyone considering a career in science, Ashley says don’t be afraid to ask questions and step outside of your comfort zone. Try to get as many experiences as you can. This will help you figure out where your passions lie, carving a path that is true to yourself and your interests; the sky is the limit!

Anna Manore, Epidemiologist, Outbreak Management Division

Anna Manore has always been interested in the science industry - she grew up fascinated with the natural world and started university with a vague goal of becoming a doctor or a veterinarian. Now, she has been working with OMD as an epidemiologist for almost three years.

Anna completed her Bachelor of Science at University of Guelph, studying Microbiology. Her degree included a co-op program, which provided her amazing opportunities to work both in academic and industrial lab settings. Her last co-op position was with PHAC, where she was involved in quantifying potential health risks associated with drinking water in a rural, remote community. Initially, she was a bit hesitant to take the position, since it was a desk job and very different from her previous work experience in microbiology labs. However, it ended up being the highlight of her co-op experience, and sent her career in a completely new direction! A highlight of that experience was the opportunity to meet with community representatives, and see the potential real-world impacts of her work. As a co-op student at PHAC, she noticed that most of her colleagues had graduate degrees in Public Health or Epidemiology, and so she was inspired to return to the University of Guelph and she completed her Masters degree in Epidemiology.

After her Masters, Anna returned to PHAC as an epidemiologist with the OMD Response Team, where she supports multi-jurisdictional outbreak investigations. A major part of her role is supporting the efforts of team members within OMD and partners within other organizations, and making sure everyone has the information they need to contribute to identifying the source of the outbreak. This is one Anna’s favourite parts of the job; she loves how everyone works together during investigations. She also appreciates how each investigation helps improve the processes for investigating outbreaks, which ultimately leads to better protection for Canadians against enteric illnesses.

Anna says a career in science has a much broader definition then you might think, and there are careers in science for all kinds of backgrounds, skill sets and interests. She encourages people to cast a wide net when beginning a career in science, and accept opportunities with excitement and an open mind. After all, without this mindset, Anna may have never found her career as an epidemiologist!

Natalie Lewoc, Epidemiologist, Outbreak Management Division

From dissecting a frog in high school to being immersed in her undergraduate thesis studying neurodegeneration in rodents, Natalie Lewoc has always been interested in and fascinated by science. She began her career as an epidemiologist with OMD a year and half ago and loves the work that she does.

Natalie completed her Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Arts and Science with a double major in Psychology and Biology at the University of Windsor. Afterwards, she attained a fast-tracked Master of Public Health (MPH) degree from the University of Guelph, which opened up several opportunities for professional development – including a practicum with OMD. The University of Guelph’s MPH program empowered her to blossom intellectually by exploring the interconnected nature of human and animal health. In combination, these academic achievements and experiences created a foundation of knowledge that allowed her to transition into the world of foodborne illness investigations.

Now working as an Epidemiologist on the Assessment and Detection Team with OMD, Natalie has taken on various exciting tasks, ranging from questionnaire development to studying the growth of enteric illness clusters. Her main role is to triage and assess clusters of enteric illness to determine whether they warrant follow up or further investigation by the Response Team, who are responsible for investigating foodborne outbreaks. Natalie and her team assess clusters by examining their various characteristics, including case counts, provinces/territories affected, demographic profiles, and so on. One of her favorite projects involved analyzing these characteristics or metrics to see which ones were correlated with the identification of a food source during multi-jurisdictional outbreak investigations. She is particularly proud of this project because she saw it through from start to finish and had the honour of sharing the results with her colleagues. Moreover, the findings of this project may help improve the solvability of future enteric outbreak investigations, thereby safeguarding the health of Canadians.

Throughout her scientific career and in working with so many strong female epidemiologists in OMD, Natalie has become increasingly aware of how crucial it is for people interested in science to be confident in their abilities and persevere when faced with adversity. She says the bottom line is this; “science is for everyone, and if you work hard you will be rewarded!”


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