Epidemiologist at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US

Viva Combs Thorsen was the top choice when CDC hired an epidemiologist despite the federal civilian hiring freeze instituted by President Trump. She will entail collaborating at the policy level, using data within an epidemiological level, and programmatic level in seven countries.


Viva Combs Thorsen. Photo: private

Viva Combs Thorsen

  • Year of graduation: 2006
  • Occupation: Epidemiologist
  • Employer: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US. The CDC is one of the major operating components of the Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Master thesis: HIV-related stigmatization: Experiences from women enrolled in a mother-to-child transmission of HIV prevention program in Malawi

What are your tasks in the new job?

There is a laundry list of tasks I’ll be expected to do. First I’m the Unit Lead which will entail collaborating at the policy level, using data within an epidemiological level, and programmatic level in seven countries. Specifically some tasks I will do are to:

  • Analyze, summarize and report Orphaned and Vulnerable Children (OVC) program data, including providing overall strategic leadership to the OVC data work stream within the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR)  Interagency Collaborative for Program Improvement.
  • Design and implement data-driven technical assistance to CDC implement OVC programs, including providing technical support to country teams to develop annual Country Operational Plans (COPs) and implement program evaluation protocols to assess outcomes and quality of OVC services.
  • Prepare responses for inquiries, reports, proposals and other documents that help highlight or summarize CDC’s and PEPFAR efforts in reaching and serving OVC in resource-limited settings.
  • Collaborate with PEPFAR implementing agencies, PEPFAR-supported country offices, and  PEPFAR/CDC partners on implementation of evidence-based interventions and program services for OVCs.
  • Support high-level, collaborative projects with other internal and/or external organizations to meet agency goals; including representing CDC in PEPFAR’s OVC Technical Working Group, working collaboratively with all USG agencies to develop guidelines, technical update documents and monitoring and evaluation tools to assess OVC program quality and outcomes.

How did you get the job?

– A miracle! Currently in the USA there is a federal civilian hiring freeze that was instituted by President Trump. The hiring freeze does not affect military personnel and those deemed essential for security, which includes epidemiologist positions at CDC. I had an hour interview via Skype, and then a follow-up interview where I gave a 15-minute presentation based on a topic showcasing my international experience and was relevant to the proposed work I’d be doing, says Thorsen.

CDC is highly competitive, especially for a permanent, exempted position where they needed to make a request to fill the position at a very high level. Thorsen was their top choice.

To what extent is the knowledge you acquired through your studies relevant to this job?

– A significant amount! I’ll be working in low-income country settings and dealing with socio-cultural, political and economic determinants of health-factors that contribute to vulnerability, disempowerment and ill-health, all of which were/are discussed/taught in the International Community Health Masters Program.

– Being among peers from these countries and gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation for the varying contexts were invaluable. It challenged my worldview and served as a catalyst to think outside the box when it comes to developing context-specific interventions, establishing partnerships that are multidisciplinary and multisectoral. The experience inspired me to play a more active role in improving the health of the most marginalized populations in the world, says Thorsen.

Do you have any career advice for new students?

– If you have identified a particular institution where you want to work, attend workshops and conferences hosted by them (or where you know representatives will be presenting), network and schedule information meetings with them if possible (use LinkedIn to link up with both senior and junior staff within that organization).

– Do your homework and figure out the institution’s resource gaps that your knowledge, skills and abilities can fill. Ask questions and keep in touch with them. Stay encouraged and don’t give up!

By Anbjørg Kolaas
Published Dec. 5, 2017 10:40 AM - Last modified Dec. 5, 2017 10:40 AM