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Sheri Lewis: Making Groundbreaking Advances in Public Health

Sheri LewisIn her first years of college, Sheri Lewis, Global Disease Surveillance program manager in APL’s Homeland Protection Mission Area, was sure she would be a marine biologist working with aquatic mammals. Her major in biology and an intensive internship at the National Aquarium in Baltimore were preparing her for that career. But a semester abroad in Bangkok, Thailand, when she was a junior changed all of that; she was struck by the realization that many people in the world needed help to improve their living conditions.

Undaunted, Lewis refocused, earned a graduate degree in public health, and began her career; her goal became improving the health conditions of people in developing countries, such as those she had come to know in Southeast Asia in the mid-1990s. Today, she is leading an effort that revolutionizes public health and disease surveillance in resource-limited countries. Lewis, in partnership with her sponsor, the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center, is working to advance technology in the field.

With the APL-developed software called SAGES (the Suite for Automated Global Electronic bioSurveillance), which is based on the very successful ESSENCE program, other countries are able to electronically monitor and track disease despite their limited funds for health initiatives. The software is modular and can be tailored based on a country’s needs. SAGES has been used by governments in Cambodia, the Philippines, Nicaragua, and Peru, and it will be introduced in Cameroon, Djibouti, and additional countries this year. “Our work with SAGES has a clear impact on the capacity of the different countries we work with, and you can see it almost right away. Knowing that we have the potential to make a big impact on identifying and tracking the spread of disease is part of the reason I love my work.” says Lewis.

SAGES has taken Lewis to the far ends of the Earth and challenged her to develop inexpensive, customized disease-tracking systems with her team, government partners, and the sponsor. “When countries can quickly assess disease activity, they can more effectively use their limited resources,” says Lewis.

Lewis came to APL at the suggestion of her father, longtime APL staff member Jim Happel of the Force Projection Department, just 2 months after 9/11 shook the nation and energized government efforts in counterterrorism and homeland security. Lewis was no stranger to the Laboratory; she had an APL scholarship for college and worked as an intern for a few summers. “My parents were big influences in my career—encouraging accountability, integrity, and honesty in all aspects of my life,” she says. After 9/11, APL intensified its efforts in public health, and Lewis found herself in a place with infinite possibilities for someone with her background.

Now, after more than a decade pursuing improvements in the field of disease tracking and surveillance, Lewis maintains that there is still more to do, and she is determined to be part of groundbreaking projects in the field. Her sights are set on intensifying APL’s efforts in broader biosurveillance initiatives that focus on disease surveillance and detection in plants, animals, or people. “APL is well-positioned to have a large impact in the area of biosurveillance as it grows. Our disease surveillance work provides the good groundwork and allows us to be an active contributor as our sponsors explore biosurveillance,” she adds.

Lewis spends her downtime with her husband and two young daughters, who she enjoys coaching in basketball and lacrosse. Her advice for her girls or other young women pursuing careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math)-related fields is a maxim by which she clearly lives, “Never be afraid to challenge yourself.”