Meet Monica Shah, epidemiologist and bicyclist!

Hi, I'm Monica Shah!

What do you work on?

I am a malaria epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Initially, I began my career in malaria as a laboratory scientist at CDC, using molecular skills from my background in biochemistry to detect genetic markers of antimalarial drug resistance for surveillance efforts and research studies in sub-saharan Africa. While completing my Masters in Public Health, I had the opportunity to apply the epidemiologic and biostatistical methods I learned from my coursework to analyze the laboratory results and explore associations with epidemiological data. This experience along with a work trip to Kenya, in which I learned about field work for the first time, sparked my interest in a career as an epidemiologist.
As an epidemiologist, I have had the opportunity to work on several malaria field studies in Kenya and Malawi and contribute to public health work in Ghana, Uganda, and Sierra Leone. During one of my first field experiences, I was tasked with training a survey team to conduct a mosquito net census of approximately 25002500 households in Malawi. This opportunity was one of many that tied together my epidemiology coursework with the practical realities of study design, implementation, and analysis. I have also gained experience in developing and programming questionnaires for mobile device-based data collection, which involves the use of mobile devices (such as smartphones, tablets, personal digital assistants, etc.) to electronically capture information. I have loved designing “smarter” questionnaires and training local staff in the countries that we work in to become proficient in these technologies.
Training surveyors in the use of personal digital assistants for conducting interviews and collecting data for malaria studies in Malawi
Recently, I have decided to return to school to pursue a doctoral degree in epidemiology, so I am currently a first year graduate student. I guess that being a “professional” does not necessarily mean that you know everything there is to know about your field! Instead, it may mean that you have acquired the knowledge and skills necessary to continue asking questions and finding ways to answer them.
Epidemiological investigation for Ebola response in Sierra Leone

How did you become interested in chemistry, and what did you study?

I had an incredible chemistry professor in high school who inspired me to pursue further studies in science. In college, I majored in Biochemistry and enjoyed learning about how principles of chemistry can explain human metabolism and health conditions. Although I was interested in the contents of my core courses in organic chemistry and molecular biology, I found the curriculum’s emphasis on advanced calculus and physics challenging. Initially, these courses seemed very theoretical, but once I was able to understand their application in chemistry, the concepts became much more interesting (although, still difficult!). Initially, I was interested in pursuing a graduate degree in biochemistry in order to conduct basic science research. However, I gained exposure to public health through a volunteer opportunity as an HIV/AIDS educator in India and this experience helped me realize that I was more passionate about applied/translational science much more than laboratory research. The scientific training that I gained while studying chemistry has proven to be extremely relevant and useful in my current career as an epidemiologist—particularly skills such as scientific reasoning, hypothesis generating, careful documentation of procedures/results (i.e. maintaining a laboratory notebook) and being able to understand the biochemical mechanisms leading to disease.

What do you do for fun in your spare time?

I love to bike, travel, and cook. I am also on a quest to find the best mac n cheese in Atlanta!
Biking on a rainy afternoon on the Silver Comet Trail

What's your one piece of advice for people interested in chemistry?

Chemistry has applications in many careers, so don’t feel limited in scope by the core areas that you study in school. It is also important to gain experience to truly understand how chemistry applies in different settings.