Research focus: Developed a risk assessment model to determine the impact of Salmonella in ground beef samples on public health. Samples were characterized by Salmonella enumeration, serotype, and antimicrobial resistance profile to inform model outputs. Results from this model assessment were used to identify meaningful pathogen enumeration (CFU/g) thresholds and serotype characteristics to reduce the number of human cases and resulting economic burden due to ground beef consumption.
Why did you get involved in food safety?
Food safety is an integral part of public health because food affects everyone, everywhere. The food supply is dynamic and multifaceted. Ensuring sufficient risk management across the farm-to-fork continuum requires pragmatic partnerships and real-time problem solving. This diversity of thought and everchanging landscape is what initially drew me to food safety.
How do you like seeing the changes in food safety technology?
The federal government has made advances in identifying and managing the risk of harmful microorganisms in the food they regulate. For instance, during my ORISE fellowship, we discovered new ways to count pathogens using Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) technology. This could make it cheaper or faster to measure the number of pathogens in food samples. As a result, these improvements could result in the utilization of more quantitative measures in pathogen performance standards moving forward, which my research showed would reduce the risk of foodborne illness in the United States.
Explain in five words what you did.
Assessed risk to the public.
What was a typical day like for you?
Risk assessment required obtaining and analyzing data that identified various risk components associated with the consumption of FSIS-regulated products. To analyze this data efficiently, I constantly communicated with stakeholders and performed literature reviews to learn more about pertinent model parameters. This iterative process entailed regular report-outs to stakeholders and research partners to maintain consensus and identify research gaps. Finally, research results needed to be communicated to diverse audiences, including non-scientists, to distribute the research findings.
Photo: Ali Strickland pictured second on the right posed with FSIS in-plant employees and Dr. Walls.
I developed quantitative microbial risk assessment (QMRA) models, which estimated the annual illnesses that would be attributable to the consumption of various products regulated by FSIS. I built out models looking at risks associated with ground beef and ground pork. Then the models also went on to predict what sort of public health impact different performance standards would have if they were implemented as well as other general risk reduction methods.
What's something you learned in school that you applied during the fellowship?
Throughout my graduate education, it has been very important to learned how to successfully communicate research findings and complex concepts to multi-disciplinary and non-scientific audiences. To be effective in protecting and promoting public health, you must be able to communicate with the entire public. Everyone has a seat at the table in these endeavors because information is powerful. This fellowship required presenting to a wide array of audiences, which provided opportunities to tweak my presentation style and materials to improve viewer understanding.
What stood out to you about working with an FSIS mentor?
Our mentors always made sure we had the opportunity to be in important meetings. I got to see and do things that people at the beginning of their careers don't usually get to do. It was really influential and empowering. It motivated me to get me where I'm at now and will continue to do so in the future.
My mentors at FSIS were very helpful in guiding me through the process of risk assessment. Quantitative microbial risk assessment is the official name for the method, but my university doesn’t teach it yet.
Janell Kause, one of my mentors, told me about a program funded by the National Institutes of Health. I applied and was accepted, which allowed me to train with the leading experts in the field of risk assessment. I can't even express how much of an impact that experience had on me. I received a travel scholarship, so it didn’t have any financial impact on me. If Janell hadn’t told me about it, I would have been a much worse risk assessor.
What were milestones that you're proud of in this program?
I won first place in the Microbial Modelling and Risk Analysis abstract competition at the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) Annual Meeting last year.
I submitted my abstract for a technical presentation and it was chosen from all the other abstracts submitted for modeling. I had to give an extra presentation at IAFP to that actual group. This extra presentation allowed me to connect with people who wouldn't have known me otherwise. I even had the chance to talk to Dr. Skandamis, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Food Protection, who gave me the award. A few months later, he accepted that article for publication. It was a surprising coincidence!
Another milestone is that I got hired by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. I believe my FSIS fellowship played a role in getting me the job because they asked about it right away.