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Former Richland woman makes difference through CDC

Emily Pieracci grew up in Richland and works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She’s shown in Ethiopia, with a dog recently vaccinated against rabies. Pieracci is working on rabies education and elimination in countries such as Ethiopia.
Emily Pieracci grew up in Richland and works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She’s shown in Ethiopia, with a dog recently vaccinated against rabies. Pieracci is working on rabies education and elimination in countries such as Ethiopia. Courtesy Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

When Emily Pieracci was growing up in the Tri-Cities, she loved animals and gravitated toward science.

As an adult, she has taken those early interests and turned them into an extraordinary career — one that’s sent her around the world and made an unquestionable difference.

Pieracci works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and she’s done everything from helping on the front lines of the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone to combating rabies in Ethiopia and investigating monkeypox among chimpanzees in Cameroon.

She started as an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer, or “disease detective,” and recently accepted a position as a veterinary epidemiologist with the Division of High-Consequence Pathogens and Pathology.

“Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember what timezone I’m in,” Pieracci said with a laugh.

But she loves her work.

Everybody likes to think that the kinds of things they do with their lives affect other people in a positive way and in a sense saves lives. But what she did saved lives for real, in a very real way. I’m very, very proud of her.

Mike Pieracci, Emily’s dad

“I love education, and that’s a big piece of what I do,” she said. “No matter what disease I’m working on, if I go into a country, a community — people look to the CDC for help. I’m glad I can be someone they can turn to.”

Pieracci is based in Atlanta, where the CDC has its headquarters.

She grew up in Richland and graduated from Hanford High School in 1998.

She attended Columbia Basin College in Pasco through Running Start, and went on to Western Washington University, where she studied history and psychology.

After graduation, Pieracci spent time working at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute at Central Washington University.

Eventually, veterinary medicine called, and she earned her doctor of veterinary medicine degree from Washington State University in 2009.

While in vet school, she traveled to Kenya and worked at an animal preserve.

Her dad, Mike Pieracci, a professor at WSU Tri-Cities, said that was a defining adventure.

“To experience another part of the world, animals in the wild — it was an eye-opener for her,” he said. “And it planted the seed of public health — that what she wanted to do with veterinary medicine might have something to do with public health. She could see in the Kenya experience the importance of environment. It was simmering in her mind.”

Emily Pieracci’s current focus is rabies.

After Pieracci completed her vet training, she spent about three years in the Army, helping care for military working dogs, among other duties.

The seeds, planted years before, began to bloom. “I realized I wanted to serve people and animals, and focus on disease prevention and not just treatment,” Pieracci said.

So she enrolled at Johns Hopkins University, earning a master’s degree in public health.

She joined the CDC in 2014, and soon was plunged into an international health crisis — the Ebola epidemic ravaging West Africa.

She traveled to hard-hit Sierra Leone, helping to determine how the disease spread through villages and communities, and teaching infection prevention strategies.

It was a dangerous time and place, but Pieracci knew steps to keep herself safe from infection.

“For me, feeling like I could keep myself safe made me feel like I could focus on the job,” she said.

Back home, her dad couldn’t help but feel nervous.

He felt something else too.

He told a story of how Emily’s advocacy led to the opening of a treatment center in the city of Bo, which saved thousands of lives.

“I get choked up,” he said. “Everybody likes to think that the kinds of things they do with their lives affect other people in a positive way and in a sense saves lives. But what she did saved lives for real, in a very real way. I’m very, very proud of her.”

Emily Pieracci’s current focus is rabies.

I love education, and that’s a big piece of what I do. No matter what disease I’m working on, if I go into a country, a community — people look to the CDC for help. I’m glad I can be someone they can turn to.

Emily

It’s a highly fatal disease, especially wreaking havoc in the developing world. It’s also preventable.

Her work includes training and education, from helping communities develop surveillance systems to recognize potential infection in people and animals, to teaching veterinarians to better identify and deal with rabid dogs.

Pieracci’s time with the CDC has given her passport a workout. And it’s been exhilarating and rewarding, she said.

It’s work she’s been building to for years, since she was a girl in Richland who loved animals and science.

She hopes to offer some inspiration.

“A lot of times, we look up and look around and think, I’m only one person and I can’t have that big of an impact,” Pieracci said. “But you can. Taking time to teach and invest in one person can lead to that one person teaching and investing in five others. The world needs more people with passion — we need more of that right now.”

Sara Schilling: 509-582-1529, @SaraTCHerald

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