Biodefense scholar studies where science meets policy

Saskia Popescu, in front of the old test sphere at Fort Detrick in Maryland, is working on her doctoral dissertation in Mason's Biodefense Program. Photo provided.

When Saskia Popescu was 9 years old, a family member gave her Richard Preston’s 1995 nonfiction thriller “The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story.”

She remembers being fascinated by the riveting story of viral hemorrhagic fevers, Level 4 biocontainment areas and Ebola-infected monkeys in suburban Northern Virginia.

“It got me interested in infectious diseases and how we struggle to manage them,” she said.

Now, she’s an epidemiologist working to control infections in Phoenix-area pediatric hospitals. Popescu still volunteers there when she’s at home in Arizona, but her career is on hold as she works on her doctoral dissertation in the Biodefense Program in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, where she’s also a graduate research assistant.

Last year, she was named a Fellow in the prestigious Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative by the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University.

“The combination of my master’s degrees [in public health and international security], for me, is very much what Greg Koblentz is doing in the biodefense program,” she said. Associate professor Koblentz is the director of the graduate biodefense program at Mason.

“The program brings it all together to understand the complexities of health security,” she said. “We have experts from both fields coming to the classroom who can speak to all aspects, which is huge.”

Popescu’s experience on the front lines of health security and her expertise in infection prevention and control are key to the success of her research, Koblentz said.

“Her research on how to strengthen infection prevention systems in hospitals is a great blending of theory and practice and has the potential to have a huge impact on the field,” he said. “Infection prevention is too often ignored by medical practitioners and by academics. Saskia is trying to change that, and I think she'll succeed.

“The continuing threat of emerging infectious diseases and rise of antimicrobial resistance around the world means we need people like Saskia who can skillfully bridge the gap between science and policy now more than ever.”

Her research is a prime example of meeting at the intersection of the science and policy establishments.

“I’m looking at what prevents U.S. hospitals from investing in infection control efforts and how the business model of health care prevents us from being more prepared for infectious diseases,” she said.

She said biodefense allows her to look at a problem from a bigger angle.

“It asks, how are we responding to infectious disease threats from a holistic perspective? Where are things falling through the cracks?”

An example of how policy meets science happened in 2014 during the global Ebola panic. Popescu was trying to train hospital staff with recommendations that were changing on a daily basis as the Phoenix pediatric medical center prepared for possible Ebola patients.

“What if a three-year-old is sick but the mom isn’t? How do you manage that situation?” she said. “Do you let the mom expose herself to the virus, or do you train her on very complex personal protection equipment?”

Popescu said she would like to find an academic position in a working medical institute.

“That way I could teach, which I love, and still stay involved in infection control at the medical center, which is the only way to understand the complexities of the field.”