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From the Front Row: A conversation with Dwight Ferguson, U.S. Public Health Service

Published on September 24, 2021

This week, Alex and Alexis talk to alumnus Dwight Ferguson (06MS, 12PhD) with the U.S. Public Health Service. Dr. Ferguson is also one of the recipients of the UI College of Public Health’s 2021 Outstanding Alumni Awards. You can read more about Dr. Ferguson and his career at www.public-health.uiowa.edu/2021-outsta…recipients/

Alex Murra:

Hello, everyone. Welcome back to From the Front Row, brought to you by the University of Iowa College of Public Health. My name is Alex Murra, and I am joined today by Alexis Clark. And if this is your first time with us, welcome. We are a student run podcast that talks about major issues in public health and how they are relevant to anyone, both in and out of the field of public health.

Alex Murra:

Today, we will be talking with Dr. Dwight Ferguson, who is currently serving in the US Public Health Service as an emergency management specialist within the Office of the Assistant Secretary for the Preparedness and Response in the Department of Health and Human Services. In his role as an emergency management specialist, Dr. Ferguson has coordinated the response for federal emergencies, such as Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and various infection control measures for COVID-19.

Alex Murra:

Dr. Ferguson is also one of the recipients of the College of Public Health’s 2021 Outstanding Alumni Awards. He earned his MS in epidemiology and PhD in occupational and environmental health from the University of Iowa. Welcome to the show, Dr. Ferguson.

Dwight Ferguson:

Well, thank you both very much. It’s an honor to be here today.

Alex Murra:

Just to start us off. Could you tell us a little bit about your path to becoming an emergency management specialist in the US Public Health Service?

Dwight Ferguson:

Well, thank you very much. Boy, what I will say is that it’s been quite a journey to get to where I’m at here today. And it was a journey that I thoroughly enjoyed. And so I can say that it all started out for me being in high school. And with me being in a high school, I had a high school biology teacher, Mr. [Hombler 00:01:41], who encouraged me to pursue a medical technology degree. And he encouraged me to do that because of the great foundation it provided for the sciences. And he also predicted in 20 years, in the future, that people would not be staying in the same type of jobs. And so it would be good to have a good foundation for which to branch out of. That then led me to pursue my medical technology degree. Again, at a university in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Dwight Ferguson:

And whilst I was there, I will say that during my senior year, I got a bad case of the flu. And at the time I was studying biology and immunology. And so I naturally decided to do my senior biology project on swine flu and looking at the flu and how those two interact together. Which, fortunately for me, I had a good friend and mentor who encouraged me to pursue graduate studies in public health. And so as a result of that, I came to the University of Iowa and I worked here, did my epi program. And at same time whilst I was here, there was a Dr. Gregory Gray that had established a Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases here. And with working with him, I decided to pursue my occupation of environmental health, to further my studies, to learn a little bit more about how diseases, zoonotic diseases impact agricultural community.

Dwight Ferguson:

Once I was completed with my degree here and working with Dr. Gray, I got an internship where I worked at West Liberty Foods and I was the safety manager there. And so all of that led to me enjoying working in the private industry and working with employees and the management system there to keep the worker’s safe. And unfortunately in 2014, the Ebola outbreak occurred in West Africa. And all across the news, there was a group of people wearing a uniform, and I became interested in who this group of people were. And they were the commissioned for The United States Public Health Services.

Dwight Ferguson:

And so I became interested in the learning more about them and to join that group of officers that serve our country through public health. I had a good friend in my church who was having a wedding anniversary and their daughter, unbeknownst to me, was in the service. And so whilst I was at the party, I got to talk with her and she told me about her, [Dr. Renee Fault 00:04:01] being in US Public Health Services. She encouraged me to apply and I did. And I got accepted. I was commissioned.

Dwight Ferguson:

So after I got the commissioned, I worked in the Food And Drug Administration in Kansas City. And I was a consumer safety officer. And as a consumer safety officer, I got deployed to assist in various disasters, such as Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, where I did environmental health, community health assessments. And after many years of being on various types of deployments, including this COVID pandemic, I learned that there was this agency called ASPR, otherwise known as Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. They are the public health agency that coordinates human resources and responses to disasters. And so once I learned about them, I decided to apply for a position within ASPR. And that’s when I became an emergency management specialist.

Dwight Ferguson:

And so, as you can see, that’s a whole winding road where, in way, my high school biology teacher was correct in that in the years to come, people will not generally be in the same field. They will be growing. And so I am quite thankful for his advice and for the many advice I got from my advisors. Because in all honesty, I had Dr. Kelly Donham, who is my PhD advisor. He’s the one that spurred me on into getting that internship at West Liberty Foods, because I worked in the laboratory, I did infectious diseases and he encouraged me to go beyond my comfort zone. So I could learn more about what’s out there. So when I do graduate, I’ll be able to be more beneficial to people in need. So I’m thankful for that opportunity that he provided.

Alex Murra:

I think that’s really interesting to hear that. You had quite the journey, first of all. It’s very inspiring. I really connect with the whole high school biology teachers, a lot of times they don’t realize just how influential they can be.

Alexis Clark:

During all of that, you mentioned many mentors that you’ve had along your journey. What do you suggest, when students are looking for these mentors, did that all happen very naturally for you, or did you go out and seek those relationships? And do you think you going out and seeking those relationships or them happening naturally, ended up helping you find your first job outside of the College of Public Health?

Dwight Ferguson:

Right. Thank you. That’s a good question. And I would say in terms of mentorships and mentors, I had to seek out my mentors. And I would encourage students, first year students, second year students, to seek out mentors. And how I did that, for instance coming to the College of Public Health, initially for my master’s degree program, my first mentor here was Dr. Gregory Gray. And that stemmed from when I was an undergrad in Pennsylvania, because he had the same research interests that I had. So I sought him out, which led to me working for him eventually, once I graduated. When I decided to pursue my PhD here at the University of Iowa, one of the professors that did a lot of work with zoonotic diseases, apart from Dr. Gregory Gray, was Dr. Kelly Donham. He had some other PhD advisees that he had mentored.

Dwight Ferguson:

And so once I figured out what I wanted to do, I reached out to him and I submitted my proposal to him in terms of what I would like to do as a PhD student. So we sat down in his office for several hours and talked about it. And from since that moment, we were able to work well professionally and personally together. And so I would say that I would encourage students to do that, because there’s a lot of wealth of knowledge that our professors have from their world experience and from their professional experience.

Dwight Ferguson:

Because again, he encouraged me to go beyond my comfort zone to attain a internship, which led to me open up a whole new world. Because as a public health service officer, I get deployed in various situations. And through my time working at West Liberty Foods as a safety manager, I’m able to tap into that, to use those experiences, to apply it to new scenarios. And also at the same time applying the information that I learned here, the skills and knowledge I learned in University of Iowa. And so sometimes mentorships don’t happen organically. You have to seek it out.

Alex Murra:

With your training in epidemiology and occupational health, there are so many things that you can do with those two degrees. You mentioned kind of having that initial inspiration with influenza, but how did you end up ultimately deciding the area of focus? Was it the mentors? And then how do you today use aspects of both of those fields in your work?

Dwight Ferguson:

Okay. So something I didn’t mentioned earlier was that, when I was a kid, I can’t remember somewhere between the age of two and five, my mom told me that I also was hospitalized with pneumonia. And so from a young kid age, I have this respiratory issue going on. And so I had that issue and then I would maybe in college, come across on getting a bad case of the flu. Those experiences somewhat peaked my interest in terms of the infectious disease component and then in the epidemiology component. And as I got into that more, and seeing how it’s easily transmitted and see the history of it, that led to me pursuing the courses that I was doing and connecting with the mentors I was doing. Because again, they had somewhat of the same interest that I had, and they were somewhat going the same direction.

Dwight Ferguson:

So that helped me connect with Dr. Gregory Gray and work in his laboratory. But it also helped me to connect with Dr. Kelly Donham, Dr. Smith with working on my PhD dissertation. And so I would say my interest in epidemiology came from a childhood illness, which led me to really enjoy biology and microbiology, which is why I took biology and immunology in undergrad. And as I pursued that I was a medical technologist, so I did somewhat of a community-based health. As a laboratory technician, you work in the hospital systems, you have a lot of medical tests that comes in and you evaluate it and you have to provide information to the doctors.

Dwight Ferguson:

And so, as I was doing that, I started to get interested in beyond the laboratory experience, to the general public health. I’m giving a particular results to a particular doctor that’s going on to a particular patient that impacts their lifestyle. But at the same time, there are many other patients going through the same thing, and they all may be correlated or connected together, which is where I got interested in public health. As I was doing my work with Dr. Gregory Gray, we did a lot on zoonotic diseases with the agricultural community, to see how their swine flu occurred. I went to the Minnesota State Fair, where we actually was doing some enrollments for persons that handle pigs, to see their ability or their risk factors for getting the swine flu. And so, as I did that, I started to see that we also had [inaudible 00:11:27] of the workers, in terms of their working in potential environments that exposes them to particular type of diseases.

Dwight Ferguson:

And that’s how I got my interest in occupational environmental health, because there’s not just the public interest in terms of how we look at public health, but there’s also the employee aspect of occupational health. So I connected my epidemiologies zoonotic diseases with occupational health, which led to me wanting to talk to Dr. Kelly Donham to pursue my degree in occupational health with a focus in agriculture safety.

Alex Murra:

Personally, I think the combination of epidemiology and occupational health is so interesting. I’m taking an OEH class right now and, I don’t know sometimes we think about these five disciplines of public health, but they’re so deeply intertwined. And I really, I enjoy the whole route of transmission aspect of my class, too.

Alexis Clark:

So as a USPHS officer, you have been involved in a variety of projects, ranging from recovery efforts after Hurricane Maria to wildfire assessments on the West Coast. Most recently you have been involved with infection control related to the COVID-19 pandemic. In what ways has the pandemic impacted your work at USPHS?

Dwight Ferguson:

All right. It has greatly impacted my work and many of the other officers’ work at the United States Public Health Services. And I will say, for yourself also, I think it impacted the whole world and how we approach our work. But in particularly with the United States Public Health Services, it impacted our work in terms of that we are now more on call for deployments than previously. And because of the many outbreaks that happened, we are being deployed to help assist various groups or agencies or tribes, to help them address the outbreaks.

Dwight Ferguson:

At beginning of the pandemic, I was deployed to a long-term care facility. And a part of my work as a strike team that went in there to help augment the staff, because they were short staffed, my responsibility was safety and infection control. So as a safety officer, what I had to do was ensure that the team that had deployed with me, that they operated safely, that they were protected from various hazards.

Dwight Ferguson:

And so before they came in, I had to do a site safety assessment to identify the various hazards and then to mitigate the hazards. I had to work with the facility themselves to identify the hazards that we identified, so they were aware of it and they could correct it if it needed to be. And also in terms of infection control, I had to train our employees and then the staff employee for the facility on how to properly wear the protective gear, PPE and what type of PPE to wear and how to properly don and doff the PPE to reduce routes of transmission.

Dwight Ferguson:

And so I would say, we in the Public Health Services, we have had to honestly grow as a service branch in terms of what we do and what we’re called to do, in that we are more integrated into the public health need for the country. And we are readily available to the needs of the public health needs of the community and the country. Previously we predominantly deployed for around 14 days, but now we’re deploying for at least around 30 days, because of the need. And then when you go out there to deploy, the knowledge and information that you share with the agency or the organization or the department you’re working with, it takes some time to develop that relationship and to identify what’s needed and then to implement the required needs. And so a quick turnaround of 14 days is just not sufficient. And so we have changed to more of a 30-day deployment. So we can properly address the needs of the communities that needs us.

Alexis Clark:

How many officers are in this branch, if you had a guess?

Dwight Ferguson:

Yes. Yes. So we’re roughly around 6,500 officers. We are trying to get it up to around 10,000 officers. And so one of the things right before the pandemic and we have what we call ourselves, regular officers or commissioned officers more correctly, we have developed a new group in our branch called the Ready Reserve. And so with the Ready Reserve, they are officers that maintain their normal day of work duties in the private, industrial, wherever else. And if have a needs arise, the Public Health Service can call upon them to deploy them to backfill us wherever needed. Because again, through the pandemic, and even before the pandemic, we saw that there’s a growing need for more of us and with more of us, it may not need to be on a continuous full-time basis, but it also could be on a needs basis. And so that when we need to call upon a group of people that are specialized, we can call upon them and deploy them for specific missions.

Alex Murra:

I have a follow-up question. So you kind of mentioned how you might have had to adapt the timeframe, you guys have to take a little bit more time now on these sites. But when you’re engaging with that community, telling them how to manage the exposure, or the outbreak that they might have, is there a specific way that you guys might have had to adapt your approach? Like comparing outbreak pre COVID, like for Ebola or something, compared to COVID? Because there’s so much information that people read online and then you’re probably having to combat that. So has there been a way that you and your team has had to approach that differently?

Dwight Ferguson:

So, the area that you’re generally talking about is health education component in terms of, yes, we have had to bolster how we approach health education and how we address communication to the populace that we’re serving. Because one of the things about that the internet is there’s a lot of information available out there. And so when we go into particular areas, we want to be be more aware of what’s going on. And by becoming more aware of what’s going on, we can be able to properly address the situations to be able to answer the questions.

Dwight Ferguson:

Because one of the things that I would say that we are addressing and have addressed correctly is that we come in with a listening aspect, to hear what people got to say, because we can’t really assist unless we know what exactly we are assisting with. And so actually, even before we get deployed, where my agency ASPR comes into play is that they work with the local state departments and the local communities so that they know what the needs are. And so that before we get deployed, we know exactly somewhat what’s needed. However, sometimes unfortunately, even though you get in the community, everybody is not on the same page, naturally. We all have different perspectives. So when we get into those scenarios, we have to adjust, by hearing what they’re saying, hearing what their needs are and doing our best to appropriately address those needs.

Alex Murra:

Thank you for that. I think that’s really interesting. I think everyone’s got tons of questions about COVID. Kind of going back to your career journey aspect, so what piece of advice would you give incoming public health students?

Dwight Ferguson:

So the piece of advice, we talked a little bit earlier, is mentorship. Seek out a mentor. Make sure that the mentor you’re seeking is someone aligned with your interests. You want your mentor to be able to challenge you, to help you grow, not just in your professional life, but also in your personal life. Because no matter how much we try to focus a lot on our work and our profession, your own individual personal life is still there, so you need to have that proper work-life balance. And so a mentor that can help you work through those time management issues and balancing your work life. So that’s one thing.

Dwight Ferguson:

The other thing is I would say, take some classes outside of your area of focus. Take a communication class so that you can know how to communicate effectively to your customers. Because when I say customers is that no matter what jobs we take in life, we have customers. We have internal customers and we have external customers. So we need to know how to communicate to both of those groups.

Dwight Ferguson:

And then the third thing is that I would say, look at your surroundings, get a beat of what’s going on in your community and the world around you to see what is needed. And this is where being a public health student, we’re able to conduct, honestly, a needs based assessment of what’s needed in your community, what’s needed in your state and what’s needed in the company that you’re working with. So that you can understand what’s needed and how you can meet the needs.

Dwight Ferguson:

Because there are a lot of programs out there that are available for people. And a lot of people don’t utilize that because the people themselves don’t see it as a need. And so you have to identify what that need is to try to meet those needs.

Alexis Clark:

So looking at your career thus far, what would you identify as the most rewarding aspect of it?

Dwight Ferguson:

That’s a great question. I would say, it’s rewarding and most challenging at the same time getting deployed for the pandemic. So going back to the long-term care nursing facility, it was extremely difficult in that, at that point of time at the beginning of the pandemic, no one knew really what was going on. Again, as I said, you get a beat of what’s going on in the world around you. Prior to being deployed in December of 2020, I saw in the news what was going on over in Asia. And so I started to look into what that was and whatever as a public health service officer, because you just never know.

Dwight Ferguson:

And so in the background, I did my epidemiology research and I did my research and I saw what’s going on. And so when I got deployed, I had to be able to know, what is it that I’m going to be doing there? How am I going to protect myself? How am I going to protect my staff? And how am I going to protect the residents and the staff at the long-term facility I was at? Because unfortunately, there were people that were dying. And so thankfully for the nurses and staff that got deployed with us and the facility, we were able to slow it down and stop the outbreak from happening. And so that was really awarding, but the challenging part was seeing how it impacted the residents in the long-term facility, how it impacted the staff at the long-term facility and how it impacted the family of the residents, because they could not visit their parents, their grandparents. They were outside the windows.

Dwight Ferguson:

So I got to see that. I got to see them lined up outside of the facility. That was really challenging to have to see, because at the same time I had my mother-in-law, who was in a long-term care facility here in Iowa, and unfortunately passed away this year, but that was challenging. And so I had to really rely on my faith to help get me through that. And I had to read my Bible, I had to get deeper in my relationship with Jesus. And I had to be able to be there, not just for myself for all of us, because everyone goes through things and we got to be able to be there for people. And I would say, I realized that life is not as simple as we make it to be. It’s really complex. And everyone is at a different stage in their life journey.

Dwight Ferguson:

And as you go through your life journey, you had to be there for somebody. There were some people that were going through some rough things. Just to be able to, like I said earlier, have a listening ear for the staff. Sometimes you don’t have anything to give to them other than just to have a listening ear. So I learned that I need to be able to be quick to listen and slow to speak. And so that’s something else that I would encourage people, is that don’t be quick to respond, just listen to what people are saying. And if you can respond, respond. But if there’s no need for a response, you don’t have to.

Dwight Ferguson:

So I would go back and say, the pandemic has been the most rewarding and the most challenging experience, because through the pandemic, I’ve been able to utilize all the aspects of my educational background, whether it be medical technology when I went into a laboratory to do assessments for the laboratory at a Indian healthcare facility, epidemiology with infection control, and occupational environmental health with providing safety training and risk assessments and safety assessments for the facilities I got deployed to.

Alex Murra:

Thank you for that insight and all of your hard work with the pandemic. To finish off this interview, one of the questions we like to ask everyone is what is one thing that you thought you knew, but were later wrong about?

Dwight Ferguson:

Boy, that’s a great question, because I could even be wrong about this. I would say that life was black and white, in that for the most part of my life, I thought life was black and white. And that’s where my internship came into play. And that’s why, again, I thank Dr. Donham for encouragement to go beyond my comfort zone. Going into a private industrial environment, I learned information at my school about how to approach safety. As a safety manager working in safety, my responsibility is to make sure that we abide by OSHA regulations. And so I had to learn that there is the black and white of the law, but also there is a gray area in terms of how you apply the law, and be able to identify correctly risk assessments. What’s the risk if an employee does this behavior? And be able to appropriately weigh it out.

Dwight Ferguson:

And I also learned to apply that to my job as a consumer safety officer with the FDA, in that there may be hazards in a facility. But what’s the risk of that particular hazard? Of course, it’s an injury, illness, or death. And so I would say thinking things are black and white, when they’re not, and then being able to properly address risk, to mitigate the risk, and to understand how much risk are you at and what level of risk are you willing to accept.

Alex Murra:

Well, thank you so much for coming on. Thank you for that last little bit of advice. And also congratulations for being awarded one of the Outstanding Alumni Awards.

Dwight Ferguson:

Thank you both very much. I enjoyed the interview and you do a great job in the things that you do.

Alex Murra:

Thank you.

Alexis Clark:

Thank you.

Alex Murra:

That’s it for our episode this week. A big thanks to Dr. Ferguson for coming on with us today. This episode was hosted, written and edited by Alex Murra and co-hosted and produced by Alexis Clark. You can learn more about the University of Iowa College Of Public Health on Facebook. Our podcast is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud. If you enjoyed this episode and would like to help support the podcast, please share it with your colleagues. Our team can be reached at cph-gradambassador@uiowa.edu. This episode was brought to you by the University of Iowa College of Public Health. Stay happy, stay healthy, and keep learning.