The current COVID-19 global pandemic has spotlighted the importance of infectious disease prevention and training future public health leaders. Both causes were important to Sara Lowther, PhD, MPH, throughout her career.
In 2020, to honor Lowther’s legacy and her work in public health, her friends and colleagues from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) partnered with the CDC Foundation and TEPHINET, the global network of Field Epidemiology Training Programs (FETP), to establish the Sara Lowther Field Epidemiology Training Program Memorial Fund. The fund, which is managed by the CDC Foundation, provides financial support to a current FETP fellow to conduct a project that makes significant contributions to infectious disease prevention and control in their country.
“Sara carried this zest for life and discovery throughout her career,” said Sonia Singh, PhD, MHS, a colleague and friend of Lowther’s. “She was a colleague, mentor and above all a friend to so many sharing her wisdom and scientific curiosity.”
When Lowther passed away, she was the acting lead of the Epidemiology Technical Support Unit for the FETP Team in the Workforce and Institute Development Branch at CDC. Sara was passionate about FETP as a means to develop and mentor young field epidemiologists around the world and build global field epidemiology capacity.
Lowther began her public health career at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, where she completed a Master of Public Health degree while serving as a project assistant in CDC’s HIV/AIDS Surveillance Branch. After graduation, she served as a fellow at CDC, providing surveillance coordination for the Respiratory and Enteric Viruses Branch before completing her doctoral studies in epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Lowther went on to work with the United States Public Health Service in July 2008 as an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer assigned to the Minnesota Department of Health.
“Sara was a caring and very supportive person, not just to her colleagues but also to the FETP fellows she supervised,” said Erin Kennedy, DVM, MS, MPH, a colleague of Sara’s at CDC who knew her since 2008. “It was a community of us as her friends and colleagues across CDC who wanted to establish this fund to honor her work and legacy.”
Since its establishment, the fund has selected two awardees. Jessica Yun, MSc, BPH, BA Hons, the first awardee, is an FETP fellow based in South Africa. With the gift from the memorial fund, Yun has been working on a project evaluating CoughWatchSA, a digital participatory system that allows people to self-report symptoms for acute respiratory tract infection, which can be associated with illnesses like COVID-19.
“Being selected for this award has empowered me as an epidemiologist,” Yun said. “Working on this project has allowed me to lead my own research, become more confident in writing grant proposals and helped me further develop my career.”
Yun hopes that CoughWatchSA can reach lower- to middle-income populations, which could help the country gain a more complete picture of where respiratory pathogens are circulating. Collecting this data could lead to allocation of resources needed to prevent and treat these infections in areas with the greatest need. She also shares Lowther’s passion for inspiring more people to enter the field of public health.
“Mentoring is important because I personally wouldn’t be in the field if it weren’t for the people around me who sparked my passion and encouraged me to strive to work within this field,” Yun said.
Alpana Majumder, MBBS, is the 2022 recipient of the award and will work on a project that helps assess infection prevention and control practices in health care facilities in Bangladesh by outlining strengths and weaknesses and identifying barriers to implementation.
To date, the Sara Lowther Field Epidemiology Training Program Memorial Fund has raised over $27,000 and plans to support at least 20 fellows in the future.
“This fund was created not only to honor Sara’s memory but also to provide more fellows with the opportunity to complete a project that they might not have been able to do otherwise,” Kennedy said. “It will hopefully contribute to their training and make an impact in their country.”
Jessica Yun, MSc, BPH, BA Hons