When Jennifer Kleene was awarded a national fellowship in the Emerging Infectious Disease program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last summer, it took a while for her to find out. She was in rural Armenia participating in a United Methodist relief effort that involved volunteer projects in sustainable agriculture.

Working at the CDC has been a lifelong goal for the 23-year-old Washington State University graduate. She completed a bachelor’s degree in microbiology in December 2000. Her father, Marvin Kleene, is associate professor of agricultural education at WSU.

“I was ecstatic,” she said of her acceptance at the CDC. She joined the Immunology and Viral Pathogenesis section in the Influenza Branch last September. The section’s work is focused on avian influenza, which has potential to spread worldwide. One challenge is to develop immunological tests to detect emerging flu strains—linked to bird populations—that might become pandemic. The work involves significant amounts of international collaboration.

“We are testing human populations that are at an increased risk for contracting influenza from avian populations,” Kleene explained by phone earlier this year from Atlanta. “Since we have realized that traditional tests for detecting bird flu are less sensitive, we are optimizing newer tests to make them faster and more sensitive.”

Such research remains critical in light of a 1997 Hong Kong influenza outbreak, when 18 people became sick, six died, and 1.5 million birds were slaughtered.

According to Kleene, it was the first documented occurrence that the flu went directly from poultry to humans and caused a respiratory disease without requiring a swine intermediary. A strain of influenza virus, H5N1, previously known to infect only birds, appeared in humans. Although the outbreak was not considered pandemic, it alarmed public health officials. Suddenly, an H5 flu strain that had never occurred in humans before was found in Hong Kong.

Kleene is learning a lot about influenza and gaining a better understanding why the 1997 outbreak was so important. “We’re looking for the next one that might go pandemic.”

Her research at the CDC sometimes requires that she wear protective gear to guard against possible inhalation of the virus. She puts on scrubs similar to hospital attire, a long apron, two layers of gloves, and an air purifier that is worn around the waist and connected by a long hose to her mask.

“It looks like something out of a science fiction movie,” she says.

Kleene’s one-year fellowship at the CDC will end in September. Her next goal is to complete a master’s degree in public health. Then she may pursue a Ph.D. in epidemiology, the study of how a disease travels through a population. She wants to learn more about the spread of acute infectious diseases, she says. “That’s where my heart is – much to the dismay of my family.”

This may also include bioterrorism research, an area Kleene has been interested in before it made recent headlines. What are the risk factors involved in the spread of infection? What steps can be taken to prevent disease from being widespread?

“Now everyone is overhauling their public health preparedness plan. I’d like to be a part of that.”