By KYLER SUMTER
Two years ago Melanie Ross spent an unforgettable month in West Africa in the country of Sierra Leone. She wasn’t there for a vacation or to admire Sierra Leone’s beaches; she spent her time riding past Ebola burial sites that left her in an “emotionally jarring state”. She spent 30 days in Sierra Leone in 2015 to help stop the spread of the Ebola virus at the height of the epidemic.
The 44-year-old Hyde Park native is a supervisory public health advisor at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and is stationed in Atlanta where she works in health policy. Her day job is spent in a CDC office, but her favorite part of her work is all she does outside of the office.
“I think it would be my love of the health pipeline,” she replied when asked her favorite part of her job. “Being able to go out and do presentations and work with young people at different phases of their academic career to plant seeds as it relates to public health careers and other allied health careers.”
Earlier in her CDC career, when she had days off, Ross began going to her children’s school and volunteering her time by talking to 5th graders in a gifted program about the spread of germs and disease, simply because she thought it was important. After she spoke to a particular class, the teacher spread the word about Ross and all of a sudden she was sought after to speak at many other schools in Atlanta.
“I just fell in love with doing that on any day off I had,” Ross said, “until someone finally said ‘Oh that’s of service to CDC, so you can do that on work time provided you have a supervisor’s approval.’”
Ross was then invited to participate in a variety of school activities, including one of her personal favorites: judging science fairs. She taught children in kindergarten- through 3rd grade about the spread of germs, did a daylong mock outbreak with children in 4th and 5th grade, and has spoken to high school students about college preparedness.
There’s never a dull day when it comes to giving these presentations.
“For the younger kids it’s about taking baby powder and blowing it a little bit in the classroom for them to see ‘This is how germs can spread, you may not see it but you can still smell it,” Ross said. “Then I’ll use a [water] spray bottle and I’ll demonstrate how if you cough or sneeze droplets come out of your nose and your mouth and they’re like, ‘Ew is that your cough and sneeze?’ They’ll think it’s my actual sneezes coming out of a spray bottle, it’s so cute.”
This work is important to Ross because many kids don’t learn about disease and germs in their classrooms in an interactive format. When she was growing up, she didn’t.
“I pride myself on bringing that to the South Fulton community in Atlanta where I reside. It’s a mainly African American population of students that don’t have a lot of access; the CDC is across town so it’s not necessarily in their neighborhood. Communities just don’t have access and just don’t know.”
Ross grew up on 54th and Woodlawn and attended Murray Language Academy. She attended Kenwood Academy High School and graduated in 1990. She credits her librarians, math, and science teachers for being very influential in her life. Ross says that growing up in Hyde Park was a great experience for her.
“I think it’s been in my bones to always want to live in a walk-able community,” Ross says. “My upbringing is very different from my own children’s, they get on the school bus and my son always drove to school.”
Her parents were both born in Jamaica and immigrated to the U.S. in the hopes of creating more opportunities for their children. That hope is still close to Ross’ heart with everything she does.
They had “very high expectations about why they came to this country: for their children to have all of the opportunities they didn’t have,” she says.
As a child, she wanted to study medicine and become a doctor but during her freshman year of college she discovered a world she didn’t know she could even be studying: epidemiology (the study of diseases).
Ross attended the University of Illinois at Chicago for her freshman year, and spent her summer taking classes at Harold Washington College.
“It’s a junior college, and I feel like there was a lot of stigma around junior colleges but I actually loved it there and stayed and got an associate’s degree there,” Ross said. “It helped me understand that there were other careers besides medicine.”
She finished the rest of her undergraduate college journey at Clark Atlanta University, where she officially studied public health after being introduced to the field through her classes.
“I had a professor there who opened up a new world to me around public health and basically led me to taking an epidemiology class at Morehouse School of Medicine with Dr. Bill Jenkins and he said, “If you want to help one patient at a time you can go into medicine, but if you want to help a population of people you go into public health,” Ross said.
In her college classes, she learned that the fact that she enjoyed Hyde Park as a walk-able community while she was growing up actually had a lot to do with public health all along.
“[I began] understanding disparities and different areas that are congruent to public health, that impact your public health around housing and school environment,” she said. “Building a playground and installing bike racks, in many ways that all came full circle as public health because of the built environment and being able to have walk-able communities and have sidewalks, it just all kind of came full circle for me when I graduated and then I applied for graduate school and went to Morehouse School of Medicine.”
She’s had the opportunity to travel to South Africa for the “World AIDS Conference” with an Atlanta organization called “Sister Love” and helped with teeing for the 1996 Olympic games with AmeriCorps, but no experience quite changed her worldview as her trip to Sierra Leone did.
Of all her accomplishments, this trip was the one her father was most proud of.
“We have strong cultural pride in the country and in our roots and certainly a connection to the motherland,” she said. “I feel like my time in Sierra Leone, he just wanted to know every story. We talked for hours about every scenario of things that happened while I was there and I was willing to share because it just opened my eyes to so much.”
Ross served as the liaison between the CDC Foundation donor funds and CDC’s Ebola vaccine trial, STRIVE (Sierra Leone Trial to Introduce a Vaccine Against Ebola). She tracked requests for the spending of donor funds, conducted inventory for supplies for the vaccine data centers, helped staff members in field, and coordinated shipments.
One of her biggest takeaways was how much we can all learn from each other. She traveled to Sierra Leone with the CDC and many other organizations including UN Aids and World Health Organization, and she noticed that some health professionals approached the trip with arrogance and assumed they had all the answers and the people of Sierra Leone did not.
“You can go into a country like Sierra Leone where the health infrastructure isn’t as advanced as ours and feel like you have all the answers, but you don’t. Culturally you don’t. You really need to work side by side with the people of the country, that have lived there, been there, speak the language,” she said. “They speak English there but they also speak similar to how we do in Jamaica, we speak Patois and they speak Creole and I found myself understanding very well given so many similarities to Patois. But there were some places where I didn’t understand it, so just that language barrier requires you to work alongside the people in the country.”
Ross and the other health professionals quickly learned things wouldn’t always go according to plan and that they would have to work alongside the people of Sierra Leone to get things done. They experienced brownouts, which are short blackouts, and then would have to figure out how to fix a generator or what they could do in the heat of Sierra Leone in a lab. They also had to engage in a process called the “Cold Chain” where the Ebola vaccine is kept cold in an innovative cooler throughout its full journey from the pharmaceutical company to a truck, to the airplane, to Sierra Leone, to a truck and then to a lab. There were a lot of logistical things that could go wrong, Ross says. And this made it even more important to have everyone working together.
She felt like everything she did there, whether it seemed big or little, made a difference.
“You wanted to make sure confidentiality was always in place, you needed something as simple as a file cabinet ensuring that files were stored properly, there was a good filing system,” Ross said referring to a time she had to order file cabinets to keep track of the records of people enrolled in an Ebola vaccine study. “Every little thing we did just felt like it was a necessary step, things that really needed to be done.”
Ross could have stayed longer but ended up returning after 30 days because her family, specifically her daughter and best friend Jada, missed her.
She doesn’t know where the future will take her, but she hopes it will be back to the classroom and to her homeland of Jamaica.
She hopes to continue traveling overseas to feel the “love of the people” she felt while she was in Sierra Leone.
“Everywhere I went people were like ‘Thank you, you’re from CDC,” she said. “Thank you CDC.”
One student, whom Ross taught years ago, recently applied to a CDC camp and mentioned Ross as one of the reasons she applied in her application. Ross hopes that this student and others like her recognize all the CDC has to offer, and that there are other careers out in the world besides just medicine and dosing.
“I want young people to know that the world is their oyster when I tell them about different opportunities. I’d like them to see how it all intersects at some point in their lives,” Ross said. “Your purpose in life is to give back in some way, it just feels like my little contribution to society to bring that to young people.”