At a young age, Shamaya Whitby cultivated a fascination with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). “Some of my best childhood memories are looking at different plant and fungus slides through my microscope and doing science fair projects, which ranged from creating fossils to testing antacids for the best ‘cure’ for indigestion,” she said. “It was always a dream to work within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with viruses in any capacity.”
Whitby has fulfilled her childhood dream by becoming a fellow in the CDC Research Participation Program within the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention (DHAP), National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention’s (NCHHSTP). The CDC Research Participation Program provides students, recent graduates and university faculty with educational and training opportunities to participate in project-specific CDC research, current public health research and developmental activities.
Upon graduation from Georgia Southern University in 2015 with a master of science degree in applied physical science, Whitby decided to participate in a fellowship directed toward curing infectious diseases. She chose an appointment with the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases that lasted from March 2016 until September 2017.
Building upon that experience, Whitby pursued a second fellowship with CDC. During her appointment with the NCHHSTP, and under the guidance of her mentor, epidemiologist Amanda Smith, Whitby was a member of the Behavioral Surveillance Team. She contributed to research on National HIV Behavioral Surveillance (NHBS) with the Behavioral and Clinical Surveillance Branch and the Laboratory Branch in DHAP.
“When applying for college, I wrote my personal statement on how I wanted to work with HIV research to help end the epidemic,” she said. “This was very personal to me because I had recently learned someone close to me had been diagnosed with AIDS. Unfortunately, the person died from complications of the disease.”
Whitby’s research involved collaborating with participating project areas to ensure proper sample collection and storage of dried blood spots for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) testing. “I received samples in the CDC laboratory for testing and storage,” she said. “I also conducted diagnostic HIV assays and helped manage large databases of surveillance and laboratory data with the purpose of monitoring and improving HIV prevention efforts in the United States.”
“NHBS is a high-impact domestic HIV surveillance project conducted in 22 metropolitan areas throughout the United States,” she said. “NHBS collects and reports data on three populations at increased risk for HIV infection: men who have sex with men (MSM), persons who inject drugs (PWID) and heterosexuals at increased risk (HET). Data is collected using personal interviews, rapid HIV testing and the collection and shipping of blood specimens to the CDC laboratory for further diagnostic and antiretroviral testing.”
This data is used to monitor issues affecting these populations, including reporting HIV prevalence and awareness and examining access to HIV testing, care and prevention. “Through systematic surveillance in groups at high risk for HIV infection, NHBS is critical for monitoring the impact of national HIV/AIDS strategies, which focus on decreasing HIV incidence, improving linkage to care and reducing health disparities,” Whitby said.
“This fellowship has been amazing and has benefited me by giving me a firsthand look at what public health decision making and strategy implementation look like,” she said. “I have gained an understanding of how surveillance programs are implemented, how to better understand emerging issues in the HIV epidemic and how data can be used to highlight disparities in treatment and care. Most importantly, I have learned to collaborate with other laboratories to anticipate additional testing needs of different populations.”
She recommended the NCHHSTP program to other students looking for a comprehensive opportunity to expand their knowledge about public health science. “I have been fortunate to have great mentors who have provided me with every opportunity to grow and learn new skills. I feel that this program has helped propel my career into a direction I never could have imagined.”
After her program, Whitby plans to continue integrating her biological science knowledge and laboratory skills with epidemiology. “I hope this will allow me to move into my interests in case management, emergency response and molecular epidemiology specializing in infectious diseases,” she said.
The program is managed by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) under an agreement between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). ORISE focuses on scientific initiatives including educating the next generation of scientists and is managed for DOE by ORAU.