A brand new epidemiologist, Dr. Caitlin Rivers, has joined Army Public Health Center through the Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation, or SMART Scholarship Program.
Just shy of a month into the appointment, Rivers is excited to work with Army data, which she believes will become a worldwide paradigm for future public health research and improvement.
Through a full-tuition grant, the highly competitive SMART scholarship offers undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to complete their science, technology, engineering or mathematics degree in accordance with the scholarship's mission to encourage civilian pursuance of engineering and science within the Department of Defense. Aside from the funding, the SMART scholarship provides the students with summer internships, mentoring and a guaranteed position in one of the DOD's workplaces after their educational tenure.
As a scholarship recipient, Rivers found the different viewpoints and career paths in government work as rewarding tools, especially valuing the job security, a rarity among doctoral graduates. After being assigned to the Army Public Health Center through a process comparable to medical residency matchups, Rivers began her position in the epidemiology and disease surveillance directorate in late July through the SMART Scholarship program.
"The data available in the Army is some of the best in all of epidemiology," said Rivers. "It's high quality, linked, longitudinal and well-integrated with public health services."
While continually interested in health, Dr. Rivers discovered public health in the federal government could combine all of her academic passions.
"Growing up I wanted to be a doctor, then a Foreign Service agent, then an anthropologist," said Rivers. "As an epidemiologist with the DOD, I get to do all of those things!"
As an anthropology major at the University of New Hampshire, Rivers first encountered public health during her freshman year while reading Tracy Kidder's bestseller Mountains Beyond Mountains, a nonfiction novel that chronicled anthropologist and physician Paul Farmer's quest to cure infectious diseases and introduce modern prevention techniques to those in underdeveloped countries. Inspired by the work, Rivers concentrated her undergraduate studies on medical anthropology before earning a Master's of Public Health degree specializing in infectious disease at Virginia Technical Institute. Through this experience, Rivers found her niche in public health and decided to continue at Virginia Tech for a doctoral degree in genetics, bioinformatics and computational biology, becoming a SMART scholarship recipient during her second year of doctoral studies.
In her position at the APHC, Rivers is now monitoring and tracking trends in infectious diseases and finding out why they occur. She says that she loves learning more about the directorate and having more opportunities to work on projects.
"More epidemiology happens within the federal government than civilians realize. It's interesting to be a part of it," said Rivers.
In the duration of her career at APHC, the scholar hopes to apply her computational skills to projects while also networking and learning more about the epidemiological opportunities in federal work through her colleagues and mentor, Capt. Susan Gosine.
Like Rivers, Gosine, who herself is earning a doctoral degree in global communicable disease at University of South Florida, focuses on data collection and modeling in her position as data cell lead in the same program. As the SMART scholar's mentor, Gosine says that Rivers is well-equipped for the field and hopes to guide her in utilizing military and federal tools to accomplish her career objectives.
"It's important for us to mentor young professionals because we need that fresh material and ambition that's being taught in schools to be injected into the Army," said Gosine.
While new to Army public health, Rivers has accrued a plethora of noteworthy publications and achievements throughout her years in academia. In addition to her role as a SMART scholar, Rivers serves as a fellow for the Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative and as a presenter at various conferences and panels, namely the American Public Health Association and the International Conference on Digital Detection.
When she is not developing her new epidemiology software package, Rivers enjoys spending time with her husband, a mechanical engineering doctoral student, and their toddler.