By Janene Holzberg
1:08 PM EDT, March 21, 2013
When Sheri Lewis joined APL in 2001 as a public health analyst, an electronic disease surveillance system was just being developed at the lab.
The impetus, she recalls, was Sept. 11 and the letters containing anthrax bacteria spores that were mailed the week after the attacks to several news media offices and two U.S. senators, killing five people and infecting 17 others.
“The data was there, but we needed to capture it and make it available to public health agencies in a more timely manner,” she says. “Now we use the system on a day-to-day basis to monitor the health of the community.”
The electronic disease surveillance system captures such information as over-the-counter medicine sales and emergency-department chief complaint data in order to identify health events, she explains.
In the mid-2000s, APL began to apply the system overseas to allow developing countries to electronically monitor and track disease despite limited funds.
Lewis likes being part of “the development of something that’s in operational use and where we can see results that tell us we’re making a difference.”
“At the end of the day, that’s what drives me,” she says.
Lewis was considering a career in marine biology until she studied abroad in Bangkok, Thailand, in the mid-1990s. The experience was life-changing.
“I learned a lot about health care and the situation of a lot of people in the world,” the Fulton resident says. “We are very fortunate to have clean water, for example, since there are many people who don’t. ... When you see something like that with your own two eyes and your feet on the ground, it sparks innovative ideas. You ask yourself, ‘What can I do to help people get closer to where we are?’ ”
She earned a biology degree from Loyola University in 1997 and a master’s degree in public health from George Washington University three years later.
Even after growing up in Ellicott City and graduating from Centennial High School, Lewis, who is now 37, never envisioned working at APL. That may have been an unusual outlook, she admits, since her father, Jim Happel, is a group supervisor in the lab’s Force Projection Department and a 30-year employee.
She moved back to Howard County in 2003 with her husband, Rob, a management consultant. She coaches lacrosse for their two daughters, ages 5 and 8, who are students at St. Louis Catholic School in Clarksville.
With them in mind, Lewis feels strongly that “it’s absolutely very important to get girls into the sciences. ... We need to build their confidence and give them every opportunity.”
She never felt growing up that she was pigeonholed into a specific career, she is quick to add. “I had to find my own way, though, but I was largely self-motivated, so that was OK,” she recalls. “I decided that my most employable major would be science, which I liked.”
Achieving goals requires a structured approach to studies, she says.
“You must set goals and lay out a plan. Ask yourself, ‘How am I going to get to where I want to be?’ ” she advises. “I am still constantly assessing where I am and where I’m going.”
Lewis says she doesn’t view anything as insurmountable, and therefore can’t recall facing any specific challenges in her professional life. And she wants all girls to believe they can overcome any obstacles to success they may encounter.
“I have seen, from an APL standpoint, a huge change or evolution since college,” she observes. “There are more women in leadership positions, and I’m encouraged by what APL is doing in talking to girls about STEM careers.
“Girls can go into any field,” she says. “That’s the underpinning.”
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