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Natural-Born Sleuth, Globetrotter Combines Passions With Public Health Job

ColoradoSPH alumna works as El Paso County epidemiologist during COVID-19 pandemic

Author Chris Casey | Publish Date April 29, 2020

Editor's note: “Our COVID-19 Fighters” is an occasional series highlighting the ways the CU Anschutz Medical Campus community is helping patients and the wider community in the fight against the pandemic. We welcome your story ideas; please share them here

 

While the novel coronavirus pandemic is stretching many healthcare professionals thin, Natalia Gayou is rallying on the front lines, along with her colleagues at El Paso County Public Health. Gayou, MPH, CPH, is a communicable disease epidemiologist at the Colorado Springs-based organization. 

She is among those who, from the start of the crisis, have provided “boots-on-the-ground” service and information to a community anxious for expert advice on how to stay healthy during this stressful time.

Gayou is a 2016 graduate of the Colorado School of Public Health, receiving her master’s degree in global epidemiology. In 2013, she graduated cum laude in public health at CU Denver, where she also served as student body vice president. At the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, she also earned a graduate certificate in global health.

A world traveler – she’s been to 41 countries – Gayou is fascinated by the intersection of science and culture. While extremely busy these days, she took a moment to answer a few questions from her alma mater about her work, scientific interests and what the “new normal” might look like after the pandemic.   

Epidemiologists are in the spotlight these days, and the coronavirus pandemic will likely create a surge of young people considering epidemiology as a career. Why did infectious disease and global health interest you?

My strongest subjects in school have always been math and science, and I’ve always loved to solve puzzles and mysteries. At first, when I started college, I looked into nursing school or physician assistant school trying to find a way to put it all together while continuing to be an avid traveler. Thankfully, once I took my first public health class while at CU Denver, I found exactly how to use all four of my passions (science, math, solving “mysteries,” and traveling) in a career as an infectious disease epidemiologist.

This was undoubtedly solidified by my time in Haiti in 2013, where I learned how much of a difference data and disease investigations can make. Part of being a “boots-to-the-ground” epidemiologist is learning how to talk to people in a way that invokes trust to gain as much pertinent information as possible while answering people’s questions in a way that eases them during their times of trouble.

An important part to remember in this realm is that we are usually talking to people in times of sickness or grief. We maintain compassion and understanding as we listen to their questions and frustrations. We work to ensure we are giving these individuals the information they need from us to regain health.

Can you describe your current position and what you’re doing during this crisis?

In El Paso County Public Health, there are two communicable disease epidemiologists, including myself. During these times, we serve as subject-matter experts during case investigations, follow up, and perform data analysis as we have expanded our team in this response. These have been understandably very busy times with more hours worked than we've worked in the past. 

There has been a lot of misinformation circulating via social media and other platforms about the novel coronavirus and possible remedies. Where do you recommend people go for information?

I encourage everyone to seek information from credible sources such as their local public health agency website, their state health department website, or the CDC. 

What do you think the “new normal” will look like in terms of public health best practices going forward?

One can always hope that personal hygiene practices will continue to improve. Not only will that help with COVID-19, but it will also help with the numerous other infectious diseases endemic to our communities.

‘Dr. Lamb’s experiences gave me an

extra push to continue on with my goals

of working in global, infectious

disease epidemiology.’

– Natalia Gayou, Class of 2016

Did you encounter any particular mentors in the Colorado School of Public Health who guided you toward your career goals?

My biggest inspiration and motivation while in grad school came from Dr. Molly Lamb. I took many of her classes, and she became a mentor for me. Her experiences in her career gave me an extra push to continue on with my goals of working in global, infectious disease epidemiology. Before I began working with EPCPH, I called her desperate for some guidance on how to increase my chances in finding a job in epidemiology. She reminded me, as she did back in school, that I had all the training and knowledge I needed to be an epidemiologist – it was just a matter of patience for the right opportunity to come around. And she was right.

(Editor’s note: Molly Lamb, PhD, is the ColoradoSPH recipient of the 2020 President’s Excellence in Teaching Award.)

What are your goals in epidemiology? Any other directions within the field that you’d like to explore, or any specific long-term goals you’d like to accomplish?

In the future, I would love to continue doing the work I am doing at a local level while adding annual work abroad doing similar work but in communities that could benefit from having surveillance data to help improve their health infrastructure. I spent a few weeks in Peru doing my capstone in 2016 and gained a world of knowledge. I would love to continue broadening my knowledge of how to work with other communities and cultures. At some point down the line, I would like to get my PhD in epidemiology and share my knowledge and experiences with future epidemiologists.

With all your globetrotting, what’s been your favorite place to visit?

My favorite place has been Iceland! It has the perfect balance of all things I travel for – hiking for days; good, different food; friendly, kind people; history and folklore; and of course, its immense, beautiful nature. 

Photo at top: Natalia Gayou exploring Iceland.