When Kelly Charniga was in high school, a teacher recommended the book “The Demon in the Freezer.” The book discusses the eradication of smallpox. Charniga found the people and science that made the eradication possible so compelling that she decided to become a disease detective.
Recently, Charniga honed her sleuthing skills at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) headquarters in Washington, D.C. Charniga developed and conducted an exercise involving a cross-border, contagious disease incident through her internship with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) HS-STEM Program.
DHS HS-STEM is a program that provides undergraduates and graduates who major in homeland security-related science, technology, engineering and mathematics (HS-STEM) disciplines an opportunity to conduct research at federal facilities across the United States.
Charniga worked in the ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC) division. Its mission is to promote and protect health and safety of the United States by providing medical care to individuals in custody of ICE, based on correctional and detention health care standards. IHSC provides training and resources related to emergency incidents, as well as support staff at detention facilities across the country. IHSC plays a crucial role in the collaboration of public health and law enforcement, including the medical monitoring of undocumented immigrants.
During her time at IHSC, Charniga participated under the mentorship of CDR Nikkia Clark, Environmental Health and Safety Lead of the Public Health, Safety and Preparedness Unit. Charniga designed and implemented a tabletop exercise involving an infectious disease. A tabletop exercise is a simulated activity in which first responders discuss plans and procedures for an emergency situation. Responders participate as if the scenario were a real incident.
Charniga designed a scenario involving a person who crossed the U.S./Mexico border with a contagious disease and was apprehended. The scenario involved multiple detention facilities and U.S. communities. The five-hour tabletop exercise involved IHSC headquarters staff, 14 field sites, and representatives from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Following the exercise, Charniga used participant surveys to write an after-action report on lessons learned and future recommendations.
Designing and conducting the intensive exercise was only one experience Charniga completed during her internship. She also visited an immigrant family residential center, attended a program for law enforcement officials and listened in on a call regarding the transfer of a detainee with multidrug-resistant tuberculosis.
“This experience has definitely opened doors for me, especially in terms of the connections I have made within the agency. Overall, this internship was a fantastic experience, and I definitely recommend it to others,” said Charniga.
Charniga will begin working on a doctoral degree in infectious disease epidemiology at Imperial College in London, England. She is interested in a postdoctorate at CDC or the Pasteur Institute in France.
The DHS HS-STEM Program is funded by DHS and administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by Oak Ridge Associated Universities.