In the U.S. and abroad, CDC scientist Jennie Dolan Thomas ’95 is a leading expert on protecting people from bacterial pathogens.

Jennie Dolan Thomas ’95  Photo courtesy of the CDC
Jennie Thomas

Microbiologist Jennie Dolan Thomas ’95 is busy these days. As a director research scientist officer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she reviews scientific research protocols in the Laboratory Preparedness and Response Branch in Atlanta, Georgia. Thomas develops tests for pathogens that are used in laboratories in Atlanta and in the field, and she is an expert in isolating and detecting bacteria that commonly cause meningitis. She deals with some scary stuff, but in her work, Thomas’ main goal is to actually help make communities safer.

Her work takes her to numerous locales: to Bogotá, Colombia, as part of a Zika task force, to Mali to develop protocols for handling an Ebola outbreak, to Burkina Faso to teach training courses for laboratory staff and to Louisiana to respond to major flooding last summer. She is a commander in the U.S. Public Health Service, too. But Thomas’s schedule was not always this full. Just over eleven years ago, she was looking for a job.

Somewhere around mid-2006, Thomas paged through a copy of Science magazine. She noticed an ad from CDC. They were looking for post-doctoral fellows and Thomas thought she might apply. She was in a good position to do so. She studied pre-med and earned a bachelor’s degree in French from Agnes Scott College, where she graduated in 1995. She went on to Emory University, where by 2002, she had completed a doctorate in the Microbiology and Molecular Genetics Program.

Thomas in Burkina Faso, West Africa supporting large carriage study to determine effect of a new meningitis vaccine on transmission. (July 2008) Photo courtesy of the CDC
Thomas in Burkina Faso, West Africa supporting large carriage study to determine effect of a new meningitis vaccine on transmission. (July 2008)

For a few years afterward, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University and taught adjunct courses at Agnes Scott, Edison College, and Florida Gulf Coast University. During this period, she learned something about herself. “Classroom teaching was an interest,” Thomas says, “but not my passion.” To pursue her interests in full-time research and laboratory mentorship, she took the plunge and submitted her application.

In October 2006, Thomas landed at CDC, and she has been there ever since. For the first six months, she worked as a contractor in the Poxvirus and Rabies Branch. Then she was promoted to full-time work in the Meningitis Laboratory, which aligned with her earlier doctoral work at Emory; her dissertation was titled “Genetic Basis for Nongroupable Neisseria meningitidis.” Thomas stayed in the Meningitis Laboratory for just over nine years, where she mentored five Scotties – four during their Bevier Public Health internships and one who took a credit internship for a public health course.

“I employed my French language skills a lot during my time in the Meningitis Laboratory,” Thomas says, referencing her Agnes Scott degree.” She traveled often to places that were historically impacted by large meningitis outbreaks. “We did a lot of laboratory and surveillance capacity building in West and Central Africa, for which we designed training courses in French.”

She worked in Niger, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon, among other countries.

Then, Thomas was assigned to work on Zika, a mosquito-borne virus that increased from obscure, sporadic cases before 2007 to outbreak occurrences within the Americas by 2015. During the height of the Zika response for specimen testing, Thomas did two details in 2016, several months each, in CDC’s Emergency Operations Center.  This work included 10 days at the CDC Dengue Branch in San Juan, Puerto Rico, filling in for the laboratory chief while he was on vacation.

Her current assignment is in CDC’s Laboratory Preparedness and Response Branch.  “This lab quality controls and releases test kits for Zika diagnostics,” Thomas explains. “When I was on the Zika response, there was public education involved from a laboratory perspective as scientists learned more and more about the virus —such as what kinds of specimens should be tested and when.”

Thomas has not been deployed abroad since last fall, but CDC and her three children have kept her schedule full.

With so much experience in the field, Thomas is asked to refine and define the scientific testing protocols used by CDC staff to detect pathogens and biothreat agents. As she has assumed more responsibilities, she has become more of a leader, slated with advising and building consensus among various teams. Her job now involves plenty of communication.

“There’s a lot of email involved,” Thomas says, laughing. The days are longer now than when she first started, but her commitment remains the same. “I want to protect the public’s health—everybody from the people that I don’t know to my family. I want to be able to make an impact.”

Header image: illustration depicting a photomicrographic view of Streptococcus (Diplococcus) pneumoniae bacteria, using Gram-stain technique (1979). Streptococcus pneumoniae is one of the most common organisms causing respiratory infections such as pneumonia and sinusitis, as well as bacteremia, otitis media, meningitis, peritonitis and arthritis. Photo courtesy of the CDC.