Coming Full-Circle: A Career Dedicated to Making Health Visible, Bookended by Two Pandemics

Dr. Germaine Louis gives a patient a COVID-19 vaccine at Mason's vaccination event with the Prince William Health Department
Dr. Germaine Louis gives a patient a COVID-19 vaccine at the Mason and Partners Clinic vaccination event with Prince William Health District on February 23, 2021.

When Germaine Louis became Dean of the College of Health and Human Services, she never envisioned serving during a pandemic like COVID-19. “Certainly, when I accepted the position in 2017, a pandemic was not on my horizon—what was on my horizon was bringing together the College’s faculty, staff, and students to become a college of public health.” 

When asked about leading the future college of public health during COVID-19, Louis is quick to point out that the COVID-19 is not the first pandemic in her lifetime or her 30+ year career as an epidemiologist, referencing the AIDS pandemic which peaked in the U.S. while Louis was completing her graduate studies. “Becoming an epidemiologist during the AIDS pandemic was impactful for me on so many levels, as this new infectious agent disproportionately took the lives of young men and women. I sadly recall the stereotyping and other shaming actions on the part of some towards affected individuals.  As a reproductive epidemiologist, I understood why individuals with risky behaviors were often being blamed for their disease, and I recall with great pride the many scientific advances that led to successful treatment and a more compassionate understanding of AIDS." 

“Of course, COVID-19 is very different from AIDS in many regards with a larger susceptible population and its airborne transmission,” says Louis.  Still, COVID-19 is an important reminder why public health is essential for contemporary life. “COVID-19 has taught us that it’s almost impossible to imagine a world without a strong public health infrastructure to protect the health and safety of all people.”  

Louis credits the College's faculty, staff, students, and alumni for their many contributions in fighting COVID-19 and protecting communities, saying “I’ve been incredibly impressed with everyone in the College each of whom has stepped up to make sure we deliver on our academic mission and one that includes practice and community service.” 

Leading by example, the Dean has also been active in the University’s response to COVID-19 – from helping develop Mason’s randomized surveillance testing plans to administering vaccines for the community at the  Mason and Partner Clinics. Louis can clearly see how her early career as a nurse and then as an epidemiologist led to this moment. 

“I used to tell my nursing colleagues that being a nurse made me a better epidemiologist. What I’d learned in a hospital setting really helped me design better study protocols when focusing on clinical populations. I could think about what it meant to implement a research protocol in a hospital setting for busy nurses and physicians or patients under varying stages of duress. And I really do think that my experience as a nurse was formidable in the success that I experienced with clinical studies (e.g., Buffalo Women’s Health Study, ENDO Study, and NICHD Fetal Growth Study).  What I didn’t expect at the time was that I would be using some nurse skills as an epidemiologist in responding to a pandemic,” says Louis. 

She reports that prior to volunteering at the MAP Clinic vaccination events, after years of not administering an intramuscular (IM) injection, she was required to refresh her injection skills and have her competency checked. “All of a sudden, I was very anxious about vaccinating after years of not doing so as some technical guidance had changed.  Mason’s student nurses were a great source of reassurance, and they shared tips with me.  I have found that early training really never leaves you, and it kicked in when I needed it most.  It does remind me of the importance of lifelong learning.  

Louis shares a story about an opportunity to also bring her training in reproductive epidemiology to bear while vaccinating a group of early childhood workers. A young female worker asked if Louis had a few moments to talk with her after her vaccination. She wanted advice on when to safely begin trying for pregnancy following her vaccination. “And I thought, 'Now that is something I know about,’” said Louis. 

After 30 years as a reproductive epidemiologist and working with couples trying for pregnancy, she was reminded how desperate people are for reliable information about pregnancy-related exposures and lingering data gaps.  “My advice to her was that healthy pregnancies and babies start with healthy women and mothers. And, first and foremost, unless there is a contraindication from her physician, the woman was doing the right thing to ensure her own health by being vaccinated. I could see the woman’s smile behind her mask and knew there was a good chance she would take that message back to sisters, friends, and coworkers who may have similar questions about the vaccine.” 

Dr. Germain Louis, circa 1975
Dr. Germaine Louis began her career in nursing before becoming an epidemiologist.

“It is rewarding to think about taking nursing skills to epi and now epi skills back to nursing,” says Louis.

When asked for advice she would share with future generations of men and women about empowering women who wish to make history in science, health, and leadership - Louis’ response is simple and clear: mentorship. 

“I know what made a difference it made in my life – and that was having a mentor (who happened to be a man) who believed in me. When I was worried about finishing my dissertation, he was already talking about my first faculty appointment—before I was even thinking about a position. When I was in my first faculty position and worried about tenure, he was already talking about my next career move. Having someone believe in you or to see something in you that you may not see in yourself is impactful - you need to pay attention to that.” 

Louis believes that academicians have an obligation to seek out students who may have natural leadership abilities or who otherwise have a skillset or narrative that sets them apart and to talk with them ... encourage them for even more. “We should support everyone, but we will always need leaders,” she says. “We also need to do a better job of cultivating hunger in our graduates. By that, I mean helping students really think about and become excited about pursuing a career beyond having a job.   

Louis closed the conversation by sharing a story about Ruth Kirschstein (former director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, deputy director of National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the 1990s, and acting director of the NIH in 1993 and 2000-2002) who during a presentation to female leaders at NIH once said that women sometimes need to ‘remind people to think of you.’ “Her advice has always resonated with me,” said Louis. “It’s ok to self-nominate or to apply for positions even if not invited to do so, as long as you have the qualifications.” Louis also says that women can help others by nominating them for awards and special recognitions. “Most nominations take time and effort to do well," cautions Louis, “But, if we don't create a culture of recognition for women and for future women leaders then we will never have the same recognition as others.”