Zen and the Art of Biohazards: Sharon Crary’s work with the Ebola virus and Global Health Efforts

When asked what it’s like working in a biohazard suit at a top level security lab for the CDC, DePauw’s own Professor Sharon Crary will use one word: Zen.

Crary began a career with the CDC back in the late 1990s working in the Special Pathogens unit. “All the very contagious diseases that don’t have cures,” is how she put it. Oh, those old things?

Crary specifically worked with Ebola, a disease that makes most of us think about the West Africa Ebola outbreaks in 2014. Crary worked on the virus during an outbreak in Uganda back in 2000. She will tell you, “at that point in time, it was the largest outbreak in Ebola that had been seen to date.” By then, it had killed over 150 people in Uganda and was seriously hurting the already fragile Gulu region. The last deaths actually occurred the day before Crary arrived, including Dr. Matthew Lukwiya, a doctor in the region who was influential in the response and treatment of the outbreak.

Crary herself was not overly worried about her own infection risk, she wasn’t working directly with patients. “I was fearful of spiders, and things like that. I already worked with infectious Ebola virus back home. I was working with it under less ideal conditions, but I was working with less of it. The lab people have never gotten Ebola.” This doesn’t come from her underestimating the virus itself, but instead trusting in the precautions she had developed back in the biosafety level 4 lab she worked at in the United States.

Sharon Crary working in the CDC lab.

In Atlanta, Crary enjoyed the repetition and organization of her lab work. In a biosafety level 4 laboratory, of which there are very few in the whole world, Crary was sealed in by airlock doors and wore a plastic suit with an air hose attached. Slow moving and with a constant whoosh of air rushing into the suit, Crary thought it all to be peaceful. Peaceful, as she worked at top level security with Ebola.

In Uganda, Professor Crary was in charge of one of the two diagnostics labs they were using to run virus samples. Since she was working mainly with samples and not directly with patients, this is where she found a greater security from ever contracting the virus herself. Even though she was not in direct contact with patients, Crary’s work did have a positive impact on individuals contracting the virus. It was one of the first times a specific method, PCR (Polymerase chain reactions), was used to identify the genome of the virus. When asked about her work, Crary will just say she “was interested in one little RNA protein interaction,” referring to her lab work in the domestic CDC labs. Not only is that “little” investigation valuable to understanding and combatting Ebola, the implementation of this new PCR method actually allowed sick or infected individuals to be identified sooner, a key component to fighting a disease that often is difficult to diagnose early due to its initial symptoms being similar to other illnesses.

There is currently no cure for Ebola, but the work of individuals like Sharon Crary allows for treatment methods and outbreak responses to improve over time. Crary represents a portion of scientists dedicating their time to work on diseases in a lab setting. Their work then pairs with the on-the-ground doctors and responders working to prevent and combat the disease in at-risk communities. Unfortunately, many doctors working with Ebola outbreaks are challenged by limitations in access and education on the disease, an issue that Crary also recognizes. In addition to her research and work as a Professor at DePauw University, Crary is also a founding director of a non-profit, Social Promise, whose mission statement reads:

Social Promise supports critical health and educational resources serving impoverished Ugandan communities. By promoting awareness, we seek to empower other people and institutions to support these vital humanitarian efforts. Conveying the achievement and promise inherent in these efforts, we hope to inspire a community dedicated to a spirit of altruism.

Beyond her diligent lab work, Crary understands the social element to preventing and fighting diseases, and generally empowering healthy communities. This same understanding is now being imparted to DePauw students through the recently created Global Health major, of which Professor Crary is a Co-Director. The Global Health major emphasizes an interdisciplinary approach to public health issues, training students to embody a liberal arts mentality when tackling healthcare challenges in the real world.

In addition to technical lab skills, Crary is educating the next generation of scientists with critical thinking skills that are needed to develop new, creative ways to respond to global health issues. While Professor Crary is a pro in her lab work, it is clear that she understands that the battle against Ebola and other diseases cannot be won solely in a Biosafety Level 4 lab. Instead, equal amounts of work must be done in educating communities, governments, and identifying the many factors that cause disease outbreaks.

Sharon Crary’s ability to enter an airtight laboratory, stare down a sample of the Ebola virus, and feel at peace as she begins her work is hard for many of us to understand. The Ebola virus is dangerous, but Crary knows that the danger of this disease lays outside a test tube. Ebola is difficult to diagnose and often devastates communities that are ill-prepared to respond to it. In the case of the Uganda outbreak in 2000, Ebola was challenging a region that was already threatened by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel terrorist group that many American’s might recognize from its infamous leader’s name: Joseph Kony. The zen may not just be from the rush of air into her plastic suit, but instead from knowing that she is doing her part to help people in need, both in and out of the lab.