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A Drexel Dragon Turned Disease Detective

December 8, 2015

How do you combine backgrounds in physical therapy and epidemiology to find a career that allows you to call upon both skill sets? Dana Olzenak ’06, an alumna of Drexel’s Post Professional DPT, carved a path that does just that – and on the front lines of public health, no less. 

Olzenak is part of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) new class of Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) officers, a group more commonly referred to as “disease detectives.” EIS officers work across the United States and around the globe to keep the population safe from a variety of health threats. Olzenak sounds like a superhero to us, too, and she’s about to take on chronic illnesses – like stroke, obesity and heart disease – which she says are as grave and threatening as any outbreak.
“For the next two years, I’m focusing on understanding how health equity or disparity might play a role in how people achieve the physical activity guidelines,” said Olzenak, who works in the National Center for Chronic Disease, Health Promotion and Prevention’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity. “Currently, I’m really examining people with disabilities. How might they be able to meet the guidelines? What supports do they need? What barriers are keeping them from achieving physical activity?”
This project falls in line with the new call to action released by the Surgeon General in September promoting walking and walkable communities. In fact, Olzenak’s branch was responsible for writing the call to action and evaluating it here in the United States.
“We want to make sure that people can walk (or roll) more. We’re collaborating with a variety of national partners to make communities safer with better sidewalks, crossings and lights, so that people can get active on a regular basis,” she said.
In February, a new project will have Olzenak taking the intent of the call to action to the U.S. Virgin Islands. On the islands, less than 40% of the population meets the recommended guidelines for physical activity, compared to a problematic 50% in the United States. The number indicates a major issue and tremendous potential for chronic illness.
“They’re known to have very high rates of heart disease, stroke and obesity, so the USVI Department of Health is interested in working with us to learn what environmental factors could be preventing people from walking or biking to get out there and meet the guidelines and prevent disease,” said Olzenak. For three weeks, she will join a team to do a baseline assessment of the landscape to see what barriers there are to physical activity and what interventions can help improve the statistics. “It’s a great integration of what’s going on at the branch and my knowledge of the importance of physical activity from a physical therapist’s point of view.”
Pursuing her passion for public health as a member of this elite group (only 60 EIS officers are selected annually from a national pool of over 600), Olzenak hopes to affect change for people with disabilities. “I’m really interested in making sure that people with disabilities have the opportunity to meet the guidelines and do activities they’re interested in. It can be challenging for them to find something they like and can do regularly.” 
She first dove into this interest with her dissertation while studying epidemiology at the University of Rochester. “My research explored the association between motor proficiency and participation in kids with autism.” This work was the springboard for Olzenak’s career in public health and ultimately, as an EIS officer. 
“I started to think, ‘Wow! It’s been great to work with patients one on one, but it would be even greater if I could try to focus on a larger population.’ ”