First generation college student Everardo Vega, Ph.D., was born in Los Angeles and moved to El Paso when he was 10 years old to be closer to family in Chihuahua, Mexico. He grew up interested in science but didn’t know where that interest would take him in life.
After high school, it led him to the University of Texas at El Paso where he majored in microbiology. While in school, Vega worked at the Texas A&M AgriLife Center at El Paso as a research assistant in environmental microbiology and water safety. It was there that he met Suresh Pillai, Ph.D., professor and associate department head of the Texas A&M Department of Food Science and Technology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Bryan-College Station.
This chance encounter when Pillai guest lectured in one of Vega’s classes eventually led to him working for Pillai at the center and studying under him for his doctoral degree in food science and technology.
“I am grateful for Dr. Pillai’s guidance through my graduate and post-graduate work,” said Vega. “I am thankful to have had good educators and scientists who believed in me and helped me to succeed.”
Now, 17 years later, Vega lives in Atlanta and works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, in a recently established division.
What do you do for the CDC?
I am the laboratory lead in the Global Respiratory Viruses Branch in the Coronavirus and Other Respiratory Diseases Division, established as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. I work with internal partners such as ministries of public health, labs, the World Health Organization, WHO, and other stakeholders to help them detect, sequence and determine the impact on a given population, or burden, and conduct surveillance for non-flu respiratory diseases.
The major pathogens we focus on after SARS-CoV2 are respiratory syncytial virus, RSV, and adenoviruses. We also work with Middle East respiratory syndrome, MERS, which is an endemic coronavirus in the Middle East and East Africa associated with human contact with camels.
Work isn’t always glamorous and can be difficult, but I really enjoy having a defined purpose in what I do and working for the common good.
What does the path from doctoral student to laboratory lead at the CDC look like?
I’ve been with the CDC for 17 years now. I started after graduating from Texas A&M University in an American Society for Microbiology/CDC post-doctoral research fellowship. I worked within the picornavirus team to identify virus recombination between enterovirus groups.
I then moved to norovirus to follow my food safety work and did a lot of molecular epidemiology. We tracked outbreaks by having the date of sample collection and looking at the molecular sequence. We could follow how a virus infection spread within a facility, such as a health care facility. I also got to work with international partners to develop norovirus nomenclature rules by doing a statistics-driven approach to identify new variants.
I then moved to the poliovirus eradication program where I worked closely with WHO. It was then that I saw the value in working with international partners toward large goals.
During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was deployed as a data analytics and visualization lead and joined the respiratory virus branch where the original CDC response started. When my current position was created, it was a merger of a lot of my previous work, and I saw it as an opportunity to build something new.
What made you choose Texas A&M and the Department of Food Science and Technology?
Dr. Pillai was very influential in my education and early career. It was due to his encouragement and my interest in viruses as major foodborne pathogens on fresh fruits and vegetables that I ended up in food science and technology.
I also appreciated the diversity of the projects within the department. They encompass food safety, production, quality and so much more. It’s a very broad field of science with practical applications.
How do you feel your time in food science and technology shaped your career path?
I think it shaped it in an unexpected way. Virology is not something people normally associate with food science, but food and viruses are a major driver of disease. My time in the program introduced me to the burden of disease and a bit more on the epidemiology side. I think food science and technology helped drive me into public health.
What advice would you give current students interested in pursuing a career path similar to yours?
Pursue your interests and keep your eyes on the prize. Life is not a straight road, you can go sideways and even backtrack, but you should always be working toward your end goal.
Do you have any fond memories of your time at Texas A&M?
There are many. The first of my two sons was born in Aggieland, which will always be a fond memory. I also now appreciate the general lack of cold weather there now that I’m in Atlanta, nights at the Dixie Chicken, the emptiness of summertime and Aggie football.
What is your favorite food?
Chiles rellenos, West Texas-style, with hatch peppers. Why? They are just really, really good.