Story of a… Epidemiologist

Cassie Odahowski finds her scientific field exciting “because there’s always something going on in the world that is applicable.”
Cassie Odahowski, Epidemiologist, Photo By Roberto Gonzalez

Cassie Odahowski, epidemiologist (ROBERTO GONZALEZ)

An early love for science. As an elementary school student in her “one red light” North Florida hometown, Odahowski regularly competed in the science fair. “I wanted to have the best science experiment and I wanted to win. I always wanted to understand how things work. My dad was that way. I want to understand why things happen, how diseases develop and what it is we can do to prevent diseases from developing in different populations.”

She’s probably not a “Walking Dead” fan. One thing stood between Odahowski and medical school: “I don’t like blood.” When doing lab research, “I would either pass out or cry every time a rat died. My professor said, ‘This is going to be a real problem for you with med school.’ Epidemiology was one of the fields he suggested I look at. I was really attracted to the study of infectious diseases.”

When it became personal. Odahowski worked at the Volusia and Sumter county health departments between her master’s and Ph.D. programs. Two years later, her interest shifted from infectious diseases to chronic diseases. “In 2014, my grandfather was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. So I started looking into rural health, and I came to find out that a lot of people in rural areas . . . are getting diagnosed later than their urban counterparts. Their survival rate is worse. It’s difficult for them to access treatment.”

Living the dream. After finishing her Ph.D., UCF “was my top choice, my ideal program.” She got her wish and now teaches two classes in epidemiology while continuing her research on the disparity between rural and urban healthcare. “I could pinch myself sometimes. I have a job I love, and I have incredible coworkers and students.”

Germaphobia gone viral. “I’ve always been the person that scrubs past my wrists and sings the alphabet song while handwashing. I’m really excited to see other people are adopting that practice as well.”

An extra incentive to practice social distancing. Odahowski is expecting her first child in early June. “I haven’t left home. I haven’t even seen friends or family in the past two weeks. I do think this social-distancing measure is incredibly important with the coronavirus because of the unique 14-day incubation period in which you don’t know you have it.”

The disease that terrifies and fascinates her. “I’m intrigued by the measles virus. It’s the most contagious virus we know of. Seeing people not take it seriously from a vaccination standpoint adds another layer that makes it concerning and scary.”

Fun minus the sun. “Being a cancer epidemiologist, I’m always thinking about sun damage. I’m the person who’s hounding everyone around me to put on more sunblock. I tell my husband to put on a hat. When
I go to the beach, I have the big umbrella and the hat and the sunblock. My goal is to leave the beach without a tan.”

Deadly choices. Odahowski says it hurts to see people engaging in unhealthy behaviors. “In the U.S., our leading causes of death are cardiovascular disease and cancer. Those are lifestyle-related diseases. They’re driven by [poor] diet and [lack of] exercise. Globally, smoking is the leading issue behind chronic diseases. Obesity is our second-greatest problem. Over 30 percent of our adult population in the U.S. is obese.”

Categories: People