HeLa teacher aims to excite her students to become disease detectives

By Susan Parrish, Columbian education reporter

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• Learn more about a career in epidemiology.

• Learn more about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Last week, Susie Ridgway stood in a massive computer room at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, watching scores of specialists on computers tracking the spread of the Ebola outbreak ravaging West Africa. The data were translated onto a world map on an enormous screen.

After an intensive week at the CDC, Ridgway, a teacher at Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience High School, has a new mission: to get her students to consider a career as an epidemiologist. The first hurdle will be educating them about what epidemiology is, she said.

Epidemiologists are “disease detectives,” Ridgway said. “If there’s an outbreak, it’s their job to figure out what is happening, how it’s spreading. They try to figure out a way to keep the disease from spreading.”

Ridgway will begin teaching perhaps the state’s first high school epidemiology course at HeLa High in Evergreen Public Schools in September.

The HeLa High human anatomy and physiology teacher returned July 27 from CDC headquarters in Atlanta, where she spent five days learning about epidemiology and public health. She was one of 30 teachers from across the nation who were selected for the Science Ambassador Workshop. The annual training entails touring the facility and attending presentations by CDC scientists.

Ridgway then collaborated with the other teachers to develop public-health-based lesson plans that meet National Science Education Standards. By the end of the week, Ridgway’s team had developed 34 pages of detailed lesson plans that she will pilot over two days in her class in the fall. She collected lesson plans produced by the other teams, too.

The CDC paid for the workshop. Ridgway, 60, paid the airfare, hotel and meals out of her own wallet. She was the only teacher from the Pacific Northwest.

She has taught in Evergreen Public Schools since 1993; before that, she taught special education in California.

The CDC’s purpose for the annual educator workshops is to get teachers so excited about epidemiology that they will ignite that flame in their students, who then might consider careers in epidemiology and public health, according to a letter Ridgway received from the CDC.

“Thousands of people work at the CDC,” Ridgway said. “Being a doctor is one one-hundredth of the career options.”

Then she listed the types of professionals who work at the CDC: epidemiologists, psychologists, mathematicians, computer scientists, public health, bioethics specialists and historians who study diseases.

Epidemiologists look at flu viruses and “try to determine which strains are going to show up next year,” Ridgway said. “They collect data — which strains are most common in different countries, and determine which is most likely to show up in the U.S. and which flu vaccines to offer each year.”

They look at a lot of determinants, or factors, Ridgway said. They have an all-encompassing job of studying statistics, data tables, geography, environment, cultural beliefs and behaviors.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for epidemiologists is projected to grow 10 percent from 2012 to 2022. The median annual wage for epidemiologists was $65,270 in May 2012.

Epidemiologists are key players in figuring out the puzzle of the West African Ebola outbreak, which had killed more than 700 people as of Friday. Those numbers are minuscule compared to the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed about 50 million people worldwide, or the Black Death, also known as bubonic plague, which killed an estimated 75 million to 200 million in Europe from 1347 to 1351. Ridgway’s students will learn about the history of those outbreaks and others.

She also will teach them basic epidemiology terminology, factors that may contribute to illness, and how to think like a disease detective, solve a scenario and do research. In addition, Ridgway will invite guest speakers to make presentations and talk about career opportunities in the field.

“We’ll pretend there’s a disease outbreak at the school and will leave clues around the school for the kids to find,” Ridgway said. “It’s finding clues and solving puzzles. That’s what makes it exciting and engaging. I’m excited to teach it.”