Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Bioinformatician’s research helps detect foodborne and waterborne outbreaks Meet Cynney Walters

Cynney Walters

Cynney Walters is a current participant with the PulseNet Reference, Outbreak and Surveillance Team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Walters is a bioinformatician using genomic data to aid with outbreak investigations. (Photo Credit: Cynney Walters)

Growing up, Cynney Walters was surrounded by family members who worked in healthcare, leading her to develop a curiosity for a career in medicine. When the time came to declare a major at Kennesaw State University, Walters decided on biology with a minor in applied statistics and data analysis. However, as a freshman, she was unfamiliar with how her coursework translated into career opportunities in healthcare. She decided to join the National Science Foundation (NSF) Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Program which led her to many opportunities.

The summer after her freshman year, Walters participated in the NSF SciComp Skills-Building Internship Program with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The program was hosted by Brookhaven National Laboratory and gave students exposure to computer programming, complex modeling and visualization of large datasets. This experience revealed a new realm of opportunities and initiatives conducted at federal agencies that directly translated her background in statistics and data analysis for understanding and supporting public health. Nearing graduation, she found the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) and decided to apply to the available opportunities. Currently, Walters is at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with the PulseNet, Reference, Outbreak and Surveillance Team (PROST) within the Enteric Diseases Laboratory Branch (EDLB) under the Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases (DFWED).

The CDC Research Participation Programs are educational and training programs designed to provide students, recent graduates and university faculty opportunities to participate in project-specific CDC research, current public health research and developmental activities.

Foodborne illnesses caused by bacterial pathogens result in an estimated 37 million cases in the US annually. Genomic surveillance is important for rapid detection of outbreaks and identifying trends which is accomplished through PulseNet, the nation-wide surveillance platform. PulseNet helps identify cases using advanced molecular technologies, which leads to earlier interventions, reduced transmission rates and improved patient outcomes. Walters’ research focuses on ensuring the highest quality surveillance of pathogens including Listeria, Yersina, Vibrio and Cronobacter. During her ORISE Fellowship, she has trained in bioinformatics to support validation of new PulseNet databases for Vibrio and Cronobacter and supported domestic and genomic analyses of clinical cases and outbreaks for Listeria and Cholera.

“I use whole genome sequencing data and data collected from clinical cases to interpret and investigate the phylogenetic relationships of food-borne and water-borne bacterial pathogens,” she said. “Additionally, I can translate the raw genomic data of bacterial strains into useful information that can be used for outbreak detection and gaining insights about bacterial organisms.”

In 2022, Walters was deployed to the CDC’s 2022 Haiti Cholera Emergency Response after a devasting hurricane disrupted clean water sources and resulted in over 20,000 suspected cases and 280 deaths as of January 2023. She investigated the first resurgent cases associated with the outbreak and compared these genomic sequences with historical strains using bioinformatic analyses.

“We discovered that the recent re-emergence of Cholera in Haiti was a result of previously circulating pandemic strains from 2010 that appeared after a devastating earthquake and socio-political disruptions that resulted in inadequate access to clean drinking water,” she said. In a separate study for a different bacterial pathogen, Cronobacter sakazakii, she used “similar bioinformatics tools to help link meningitis cases in two infants to contaminated opened powdered infant formula and breast pump parts.”

A typical day for Walters includes checking in with the several teams she collaborates with in the Enteric Diseases Laboratory Branch (EDLB) and analyzing data pulled from overnight data analysis runs from the high-performance computing servers hosted at the CDC. Walters is also active in the laboratory and supports data generation using whole genome sequencing for clinical cases of foodborne illness that are sent to the reference laboratories in EDLB. This means that she is involved in all aspects of the next generation sequencing workflow in characterizing bacterial pathogens, beginning in the “wet” lab for whole genome sequencing, to the “dry lab” portion of analyzing the data. Her favorite part of her research is at the end of the genome sequencing flow.

“At the end of the whole genome sequencing workflow, it is incredibly motivating to see how the bacterial DNA from a patient that was really sick can be compared and linked to suspected or even surprising sources,” she said. “With generated sequence data for each individual bacterial strain, we can establish phylogenetic relationships and potentially uncover the evolution of an outbreak and relatedness of strains to help solve outbreak investigations. Foodborne illness is very common and supporting these efforts has a direct impact on public health.”

Walters has two published papers and is working on three more that she plans to have published by the end of this year. Her published papers are, Genome Sequences from a Reemergence of Vibrio cholerae in Haiti, 2022 Reveal Relatedness to Previously Circulating Strains in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology and Cronobacter sakazakii Infections in Two Infants Linked to Powdered Infant Formula and Breast Pump Equipment in The Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).

Walters’ experience with the program has been beneficial to her learning experience and highly recommends it to anyone with a passion for public health and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). She also is incredibly thankful to her mentor, Christine Lee, Ph.D., for her endless encouragement and support that has guided her to explore the endless opportunities of STEM while working at the CDC.

“Every aspect of the program has been so rewarding and educational and I am so thankful for this rare opportunity to contribute to not only the research of food-borne and water-borne pathogens, but also to the real-time outbreak investigations unfolding across the globe,” she said.

After the completion of the program, Walters plans to enroll in a medical degree program and continue research throughout her training.

“I am still unsure, but I want to continue to build on top of the work I do now as a bioinformatician as I believe genomic data is incredibly useful and is revolutionizing healthcare with precision medicine,” she said. “I hope to apply my skills learned from bacterial genomics with helping to improve human and public health.”

The CDC Research Participation Program is managed by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) under an agreement between CDC and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.