Member Spotlight: Alexia Harrist

February 15, 2018|1:26 p.m.| ASTHO Staff

Alexia HarristAlexia Harrist is state health officer and state epidemiologist of the Wyoming Department of Health’s Public Health Division. A board-certified pediatrician, Harrist entered public health after becoming an epidemic intelligence service officer assigned to the Wyoming Department of Health. She then worked as a medical officer in the Division of Tuberculosis Elimination at CDC prior to returning to Wyoming. Harrist earned her MD and PhD in neuroscience from the University of Pennsylvania. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

What was the experience or motivating factor that compelled you to become a state health official?

Throughout my career I have been interested in how science and research can be more directly applied to improve the public’s health. That interest is what motivated me to become an epidemiologist, where I could study and apply scientific and evidence-based principles to prevent and control disease. As a state health officer, I have the opportunity to apply these principles to improve public health systems more broadly. I am thrilled for the opportunity to work in so many areas of public health, such as infectious disease, maternal and child health, substance abuse prevention, rural health, and preparedness.

Was there someone who influenced you to become a state health official?

Wendy Braund, the former state health officer of Wyoming, provided great mentorship. Her leadership abilities and devotion to public health continue to inspire me.

What is your morning ritual?

I have to run first thing in the morning, otherwise the day just doesn’t feel right. I run seven miles on the weekdays and 10-15 miles on weekends, despite the Wyoming wind that never seems to stop!

What do you do to stay healthy?

Running is my favorite exercise. I try to schedule at least a few races every year so I always have something to train for. This year I ran the Moab Trail Half Marathon, the Philadelphia Marathon, and I’m looking forward to running my fourth Boston Marathon in April.

Where is your favorite vacation spot?

Either Grand Teton National Park or Acadia National Park. Both have beautiful mountains with amazing hiking.

What are your favorite hobbies?

I love to spend time outdoors. Luckily, I live in the perfect place to do it. Hiking, skiing, and mountain biking are my favorite activities. I also follow sports closely, especially my hometown Boston teams.

What is your state doing to address the opioid epidemic?

Our efforts have involved collaboration among multiple groups within the agency along with many external stakeholders. Like many states, we have worked to increase access to naloxone, reduce communicable disease transmission associated with IV drug use, increase availability of substance abuse treatment and recovery programs (including medication assisted therapy), promote safe drug disposal, and prevent opioid misuse through educational and media campaigns.

How did your career in public health begin?

When I was a pediatric intern in Boston, one of my senior residents entered the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) at CDC. Throughout the rest of my training, I took an interest in how public health and medicine intersected. A year after finishing residency, I joined EIS. After living on the east coast my entire life, I wanted to try the west. I was lucky to be assigned to the Wyoming Department of Health for my fellowship. I received wonderful mentorship and training and jumped at the chance to return.

What do you love most about the public health work you do?

I love interacting directly with people and communities. As part of our ongoing state health assessment, I had the opportunity to attend community engagement sessions throughout the state. It was inspiring and energizing to hear about the role that public health plays in the lives of people and communities.

What do you find most challenging about public health?

As an epidemiologist I always want to make decisions based on scientific evidence. Unfortunately, that evidence isn’t always there and sometime you have to make timely decisions before all the evidence has been collected.

What are your primary public health priorities?

My priority is to educate and empower people to make the best decisions for their own and their family’s health.

What is something you’re most thankful to have been a part of during your career in public health?

The two years of my EIS fellowship encompassed both the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the emergence of Zika in the Western Hemisphere. I was deployed twice to Sierra Leone as part of CDC’s Ebola outbreak response and to Brazil to help conduct an investigation into the link between Zika virus infection and birth defects. These were opportunities to work with truly amazing people in both countries. Their dedication to the health of their communities in the face of limited resources was an inspiration. I apply the lessons I learned on those deployments every day.