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Science for Social Welfare

While working on a Ph.D. in molecular neuroscience at Caltech, Andrew Medina-Marino ’96 felt something was missing.

“I realized I was never going to be fully happy if I didn’t find a way to integrate my love of science with my passion for social welfare,” he says.

A suggestion from a member of his thesis committee ended up pointing him to the perfect solution: the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Accepted into the elite training program, Medina-Marino gained a deep understanding of public health—and how it mirrored his Swarthmore educational experience.

“The humanities are just as important to impacting public health as the sciences or social sciences,” he says. “Doctors and researchers may understand epidemics through science and medicine, but communities make sense of epidemics through dance, art, and performance. Studying the liberal arts was the perfect way to learn to approach public health holistically.”

Medina-Marino conducted disease-outbreak investigations around the world, including the plague in Chicago with the CDC and Ebola in West Africa with Doctors Without Borders.

“The EIS was everything I ever wanted,” he says.

He was also part of an outbreak investigation into childhood deaths due to lead poisoning in Nigeria. An initial inquiry by another team of CDC investigators found that the poisoning was coming from gold ore with high concentrations of lead the communities were mining.

Medina-Marino’s team determined that the scope of the poisoning wasn’t limited to just one village—and that hundreds more children and adults in other villages were also poisoned.

“You had the intersection of global climate change that caused these villages to lose productivity of their agricultural land; you had a lack of economic opportunities that forced them to move from farming to gold mining; and you have very real public health outcomes from the intersection of poverty, economics, and environmental disturbance,” he says.

Now based in South Africa, Medina-Marino is head of research for a nongovernmental agency, the Foundation for Professional Development, focusing on epidemiological and intervention research to decrease the burden of HIV and tuberculosis, which are both rampant in the country.

Despite the overwhelming scale of these epidemics, Medina-Marino relishes his work for its intellectual challenge and the opportunity it gives him to make a real impact.

He will be one of the world’s first researchers to pilot a new battery-powered device that will allow him to test for TB in the field, and to provide patients with their results in just 90 minutes. (Traditional lab tests took up to 40 days to give definitive results.) It’s a case of new technology saving time, money, and lives.

Medina-Marino is proud he’s found a way to change the world by joining his two passions.

“My goal,” he says, “is to ensure that all people have the health security to be productive members of society.”