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People to Watch: Dr. Caitlin Pedati , Iowa State Epidemiologist Rodney White, rodwhite@dmreg.com

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Dr. Caitlin Pedati will appear on your TV screen one of these days to talk about something gross.

Pedati, Iowa’s new state epidemiologist, will spread the word about food poisoning outbreaks, flu epidemics or diseases inflicted by bacteria, mosquitoes, ticks and untold other pests. She'll explain the threats, the symptoms and what the public should do about them.

On quieter days, she'll try to persuade Iowans to eat their vegetables, get vaccinated, quit smoking, and take a walk once in a while.

Pedati, 33, aims to fill the shoes of Patricia Quinlisk, who retired this fall after serving 24 years in a job that's been described as “Iowa’s doctor.”

Pedati realizes the life of an epidemiologist is unlikely to be portrayed in an action-packed TV series.

“Telling people to wash their hands or use hand sanitizer is not that thrilling, I suppose,” she joked. But such mundane safeguards can prevent illnesses and deaths just as surely as any surgeon or emergency room doctor can.

Pedati speaks in a calm, friendly voice, using everyday words to discuss serious health threats.

That ability impressed Jeneane Moody, executive director of the Iowa Public Health Association. Moody, who helped interview candidates for the job, said the state’s epidemiologist must tell jittery Iowans what they should do during stressful disease outbreaks.

“You need to remain calm and stay grounded in the facts,” she said. “She sounded authoritative without sounding intimidating. That’s a real fine balance.”

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Photos of viruses on the wall

Pedati's enthusiasm for her work is evident in her new office near the Statehouse.

One wall is decorated with framed, colorful photos of viruses and bacteria, including those that cause flu, AIDS and tularemia. A nearby shelf holds thick books titled "Cancer Epidemiology," "The Common Plague," and "Gray's Anatomy." The shelf is brightened with plush-toy versions of an Ebola virus, a Zika virus and a host of other microscopic enemies, plus a toy white blood cell to fend them off.

Germ-fighting has been on Pedati’s mind since she was a kid. She remembers being intrigued by the stethoscope and medical books that her mom, who worked as a nurse, brought to their home in suburban Washington, D.C.

“Some kids grow up wanting to be an astronaut,” she said. “I don’t remember ever not wanting to be a doctor.”

She recalls feeling a secret thrill when her two sisters would become ill, and she could accompany them to their family doctor.

“He’d say, ‘Do you want to look in Erin’s ear, or do you want to look in Meg’s throat or listen to their chest?’ I just loved it,” she said.

Pedati became a board-certified pediatrician after attending medical school at George Washington University. But she was increasingly interested in finding broad solutions to the common health problems she saw while training as a physician in clinics.

Unvaccinated kids would develop the flu. Toddlers would be injured when unsecured TVs tipped over on them. Children would have repeated asthma flare-ups sparked by mold, cigarette smoke or other allergens in their homes.

“I felt like I was seeing the same things over and over again,” she said. “After a while, it felt like you were just reinventing the wheel.”

She decided to specialize in public health, which seeks to prevent illnesses and injuries instead of treating them after they happen.

She landed a training stint with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which sent her to Guatemala to help track emerging infectious diseases. Then she entered a longer-term CDC training program, which sent her to work in the Nebraska health department in 2015.

“I loved public health at the state level. I felt it was somewhere you could really get things done,” she said.

Advice from predecessor: Be honest, be clear

Pedati was still working in Nebraska when she heard about the Iowa state epidemiologist job becoming open. Iowa's Department of Public Health hired her last summer. 

Pedati was grateful for the chance to work at Quinlisk’s side for three months before the longtime epidemiologist retired in September.

The veteran advised her successor to always be honest and clear with Iowans. Don't take the attitude that you're "dumbing down" the message if you use plain language instead of medical jargon, she said.

The best way to prevent panic in a health crisis is to offer Iowans straightforward steps they can take to protect themselves and their families, Quinlisk told Pedati. Also, she said, brace yourself for occasional blowback, including from parents who incorrectly believe vaccinations harm children.

More: Read about other People to Watch

Quinlisk said her successor has a level-headed confidence, which will be important under pressure.

“You often have to make decisions before you know everything you’d like to know,” she said in an interview.

For example, she said, a state epidemiologist might have to order a restaurant closed if it is the suspected source of a food-poisoning outbreak. Public-health officials can’t always wait until tests confirm whether such suspicions are correct.

“You have to be honest with people about what you do know and what you don’t know,” Quinlisk said.

The lesson of the 'Not-So-Rabid-Bear'

Quinlisk faced such a quandary early in her Iowa career. A bear cub at a petting zoo in northeast Iowa had nipped a few children, and an initial test suggested it had rabies. Many children had touched the cub, which was named Chief. One girl had even shared her chewing gum with Chief, then put it back in her own mouth, Quinlisk recalled.

Amid national news of the incident, the epidemiologist urged that more than 100 children immediately start taking a series of shots against rabies, which can be deadly.

About a week later, follow-up tests showed the bear cub did not have rabies. Quinlisk took some lumps for the incident, but she said she made the necessary call based on the information available.

Her staff pranked her afterward by gluing plastic foam to the mouth of a teddy bear. They named it “Not-So-Rabid-Bear” and presented it to the epidemiologist. She kept it in her office for years. Quinlisk left the foaming-mouth teddy bear behind for her successor when she retired.

Pedati said she appreciates the sentiment behind “Not-So-Rabid-Bear.” She took to heart Quinlisk’s advice that if she always levels with Iowans, they’ll understand that her advice can change as facts become clearer.

“Sometimes that’s going to happen,” Pedati said. “But you always have to act in the public’s interest.”

The next time viruses fill the air or bacteria foul the food, you’ll see her on TV, giving it her best shot.

About ‘People to Watch’

The Des Moines Register's "15 People to Watch in 2019" are movers and shakers, givers and doers. They were chosen by Register news staff from scores of reader nominations. Their stories will run in the Register through Jan. 6. To read about past People to Watch, visit desmoinesregister.com/peopletowatch.

Caitlin Pedati

AGE: 33

BORN: In New Jersey; grew up in Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.

EDUCATION: George Washington University, doctor of medicine and master's in public health, 2012; Georgetown University, bachelor's degree in human science and certificate in population health, 2007.

PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE: Named Iowa state epidemiologist and Iowa public health medical director in June 2018. Served as a medical epidemiologist for state of Nebraska, 2017-18. Stationed in Nebraska for the Epidemic Intelligence Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015-17. Served internship and residency, Children's National Health System, Washington, D.C., 2012-15. Worked as laboratory manager and research assistant in George Washington University's microbiology department, 2007-09. Worked as a research assistant for the American Red Cross and then the Arlington County (Va.) Health Department, 2006-07.

TEACHING EXPERIENCE: Adjunct faculty, and master's thesis adviser, University of Nebraska Medical Center, College of Public Health, 2017-18. 

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