Alumna Spotlight: Biodefense Grad Tam Dang, Dallas County Epidemiologist

Tam Dang started in the biology world, earning her Bachelor’s of Science degree from George Mason University in 2008. But it was her course of study in the Master’s in Biodefense program at the Schar School that put her on her present career path. 

The degree, she said, “introduced me to the public health field, and offered a unique perspective from a biosecurity and bioterrorism standpoint.”

Today, Dang is an epidemiologist for the Dallas County Department of Health and Human Services in Dallas, Texas. She works in the Acute Communicable Disease Epidemiology Division, helping to lead epidemiological investigations for infectious disease outbreaks or potential bioterrorism events. She monitors local, regional, and state data sources related to infectious diseases, and helps develop outbreak and bioterrorism plans to help support public health preparedness.

Her work is at the intersection of public health and health security, an important field in the modern era.

But how busy can she be, working in a major developed city with top-ranked health care facilities? As it happens, Dallas has the 12th busiest international airport in the world—the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport—exposing the region to heightened risks for the importation of infectious diseases. In 2014-15, the DFW airport received the highest number of travelers from countries affected by Ebola outbreaks of any airport within Texas.

"I think some significant health security threats we are facing in the U.S. in 2019 are related to the potential for importations or outbreaks of high-consequence emerging infectious diseases, such as Ebola and avian influenza,” she said. “In a metropolitan area like Dallas/Fort Worth, our Public Health Emergency Preparedness division is keenly aware that our proximity to the airport confers particular risk for international importations of infectious diseases.” 

Because of this past experience with Ebola, “the current Ebola outbreak affecting the Democratic Republic of Congo has been watched closely by our PHEP epidemiologists over the past year,” she said. “This team has been busy participating in drills and meeting with area hospitals and other community agencies to ensure appropriate measures are in place to rapidly identify, isolate, and evaluate possible cases."

Since joining the epidemiology team, Dang, who has since by joined by fellow Schar School 2019 biodefense master’s degree graduate Stephen Taylor, has found plenty of ways to leverage her biodefense degree. She has developed communicable disease and emergency response plans, facilitated a pandemic influenza exercise for medical students at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and presented on insider threats in biosafety laboratories to sentinel lab personnel, to name a few.

One of her current projects involves educating healthcare workers on how to screen and triage patients who may have high consequence infectious diseases such as Ebola, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), or novel influenza. 

Her degree from the Schar School’s biodefense program was key to landing her current position, she said.

“It helped me stand out from the pile of applications my supervisor received,” she said. “My biology background and prior employment experiences also played a large part in rounding out my graduate education and narrowing my professional field of interest.

“Overall, past experience and the added education and skills I obtained from the Biodefense Program were critical factors in helping me pursue my career goals."

Additional reporting by Buzz McClain.