Story and Photos by Paul Clark
Kathleen Sebelius (left), U.S. Health and Human Services secretary, chats with Nora Purcell (right) and another member of the Haiti team.
Warren Wilson alumna Nora Purcell ’09 has a passion for tracking how diseases spread, a passion she discovered during an internship at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The internship was “pretty key” to her career, said Purcell, hired at CDC after her internship and now in pre-med classes at Johns Hopkins University. “I don’t think I would have otherwise known to go into public health.”
She credits Warren Wilson Professor John Brock’s class in epidemiology with initially leading her toward her passion. One of the few undergraduate courses of its kind in the country, it complemented her interest in mapping and geographic information systems. The environmental studies major put all of that to work at the CDC in her study of the relationship between schools beside busy roadways and the health of the students inside.
Brock, who worked at the CDC before coming to Warren Wilson, said the study yielded “beautiful, elegant layers of analyses.”
“I think a lot of young people are looking for something really worth doing,” he said. “This internship helps them focus on a manageable set of problems that they find is worth their time, that they can devote their lives to.”
CDC hired Purcell upon graduation as a geographer mapping and analyzing public health developments. After three years in Atlanta, she joined a team of more than 300 CDC scientists and staff in Haiti, working to help the country rebuild its health services infrastructure after the devastating 2010 earthquake and cholera epidemic.
Nora Purcell (left of U.S. flag), HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (front center) and Centers for Disease Control Director Thomas Frieden (to Sebelius’ right) and the entire Haiti team.
Warren Wilson has sent half a dozen students to the CDC for internships in the past 15 years. Most CDC interns from Warren Wilson end up working there after graduation, some leaving only to go to medical or nursing school.
“Warren Wilson students tend to be very popular there, and I think that’s because we teach critical thinking very well here,” said Brock, who is currently working with the CDC on the relationship between health and climate change. “When our students are thrown into situations that call for multiple disciplines, which public health does, they do really well. The liberal arts teach them to think broadly and quickly about the systems they’re working on.”
Brock also noted the work of former Warren Wilson student and CDC intern Luke Lucas. Brock said Lucas has done “amazing work” in HIV epidemiology.
“He really found his passion doing this,” Brock said. “Once the fire was lit, that passion really took off. I want to help our students find that passion.”