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The ‘disease detective’ who dives

Former Texas A&M diver now leader in fight against COVID-19

Erin Sauber-Schatz

Long before she served as lead of a task force for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 emergency response, Cmdr. Erin Sauber-Schatz was a springboard and platform diver for Texas A&M.

“The CDC is 24/7, so the training and dedication that you have as a student-athlete can carry over into these 12- to 14-hour workdays and weekends,” said Sauber-Schatz, who leads the Community Interventions and Critical Populations Task Force. “Even when you’re tired or feel defeated, you keep going, and you keep pursuing that level of excellence you know that you’re capable of reaching.”

She first became interested in diving at 10 years old. During a warmup for a city swim meet, she noticed the artful acrobatics over the diving well. 

“I remember seeing the divers doing flips and twists, and I thought, ‘Why am I swimming laps? I want to do that!’” Sauber-Schatz said.

Sauber-Schatz prepares to dive.

She began diving lessons the following week, ultimately becoming the sole diver for her high school swim team.

By the time Sauber-Schatz was diving for the Texas A&M Aggies and facing the inevitable challenge of balancing late-night study sessions with early morning practices and weight training, she was empowered with a guiding principle from her high school coach that helped ground her priorities through college: school, swimming, then social. She said this mantra helped carry her forward.

“When I could squeeze a nap in during the day, sometimes that was on the floor outside of my classroom,” Sauber-Schatz said. “After 6 a.m. weights, when I didn’t have a class until 9 a.m., I would shower, get outside of my classroom, set an alarm, and then fall asleep on the floor for 20 minutes. You do what you have to do to make sure that you feel balanced and are the best student and best athlete that you can be.”

While balancing school, swimming and social interests, Sauber-Schatz decided during her junior year of college to pursue public health. Like many biology students, she initially considered medical school. One day she heard a microbiology professor lecture on epidemiology and statistics, and it immediately sparked her interest. She soon submitted her application for the master’s program in public health at Texas A&M.

It took only a month in her master’s program to know a career in public health was right for her.

Sauber-Schatz then pursued a Ph.D. in epidemiology from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. There, she applied to the Epidemic Intelligence Service, a two-year CDC postdoctoral training program for health professionals interested in the practice of applied epidemiology. As one of the few nationwide applicants selected for the program, Sauber-Schatz became an EIS officer — sometimes referred to as a “disease detective” — in 2009.

“We have a high bar of scientific excellence at the CDC, making sure that all of the guidance, resources and tools that we put out are steeped in science,” Sauber-Schatz said. “Going that extra mile, giving that extra effort is something that I’ve had to do throughout my life as a student-athlete, and that carries over into my professional work.”

The grit that diving demands of its athletes provides the wherewithal to do great things on and off the diving board. For Sauber-Schatz, that means leading a CDC task force that focuses on providing guidance on prevention measures to help slow the spread of COVID-19. 

The CDC workforce has skills that can be applied to different diseases and illnesses. As emergency responders deploy to the CDC Emergency Operations Center and across the country to support states, tribes, localities and territories, they must work in parallel to accomplish what must be done.

Sauber-Schatz has to trust her teams as a task force lead. She has to know they are positioned to do their best work and will support everything that must get done in a day — a skill that she attributes to her experience as a student-athlete.

“I’m able to trust my teams and the other scientists in my task force and know that they are also going to go above and beyond to make sure we’re doing everything we need to do to help end this pandemic.”