Where are they now? PhD alum Kristen Aiemjoy

As a leading cause of childhood death in the world, diarrhea should be no laughing matter. Yet, the medical community has not come up with a good way to define this vague symptom or to identify what causes it for individual patients.

UCSF graduate alumna Kristen Aiemjoy, PhD, MPH, is committed to finding better answers for diarrheal disease. Her friends think twice before inviting her for dinner if they’re not willing to talk about her work at the table. “I’m very passionate about it,” she acknowledged with a good-natured chuckle in a recent conversation.

You would think with such a serious illness that doctors would have a concrete way to diagnose diarrheal illness. But they don’t. Doctors, and clinical and global health scientists, often rely on children’s caregivers’ reports of symptoms. Aiemjoy found in her PhD research in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics that these only about 15 percent accurate (or “sensitive”).

Now a postdoc in the division of infectious diseases at Stanford University, Aiemjoy is studying the effectiveness of blood tests (which identify patients’ exposure to common diarrhea-causing bacteria, viruses and parasites) and stool tests (which identify the pathogen being shed) to diagnose diarrhea and identify its cause.

How did she know epidemiology was right for her? As it turns out Aiemjoy was born into it. Her mother and father met in a feeding center caring for victims of the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s. Her mother was a nurse; her father was a journalist. “In some ways, I kind of fused their two careers into one,” Aiemjoy said. She explained that an important part of epidemiology is “telling the story to try to have an impact.”

By teaching epidemiology and biostatistics through the UCSF PhD program, Aiemjoy realized she wanted to pursue a career in academia. In hindsight the biggest advantage UCSF’s program offered was its deep integration with clinical work. “At first it was a little intimidating,” she confessed, but now Aiemjoy benefits from her comfort with working with medical colleagues and terminology. Her postdoctoral mentor is a clinician, and her work conducting population-level blood testing for typhoid bacteria is part of a larger coordinated effort to find the best way to deploy a recently developed vaccine for typhoid, a common cause of diarrhea in Southeast Asia.

If you are considering a PhD in Epidemiology and Biostatistics, contact Professor Maria Glymour.