It is an exciting time in the career of Anastasia Pharris, a human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-turned-coronavirus expert at the European Center for Disease Control (ECDC). Anastasia’s career involves bringing together specialists from different disciplines in order to address some of Europe’s most pressing infectious disease issues. Sociable and easy to talk to, it is no surprise that she excels at her job and fitting that this interview was done in her home over American-style pancakes and a steaming cup of pumpkin spice coffee.
An unlikely career path
Anastasia is a long way from home. A Sociology and Philosophy graduate of Seattle University, it seemed improbable that she would end up as a virus expert at a European agency. The beginnings of her transition story can be traced back to volunteer work that she performed after her undergraduate studies. Following an interest in social sciences and humanitarian affairs, Anastasia volunteered at an orphanage in Calcutta, India. She described the organization as “admirable,” but saw the shortcomings of their aid.
“It was such a Band-Aid,” she said. “Children would come in really sick, we would treat them, send them back, and they would come back again.” It was then that Anastasia made the decision to dedicate herself to global health and making real-world policy changes to improve people’s lives. “I definitely feel that I have more of an impact now,” she stated.
From liberal arts graduate to virus expert
In order to convert her sociology and philosophy background into healthcare-based expertise, Anastasia completed a bachelor’s in nursing and two master’s degree programs at Johns Hopkins University: one in Public Health, and the other in Community Health Nursing. These studies led her to Karolinska Institute, where she was first a research officer and then PhD student focusing on public health measures to control the spread of HIV. Her PhD equipped her with valuable tools for a career in public health, including the ability to collaborate and critique study designs.
Anastasia did not plan on staying in academia beyond her dissertation. “I didn’t feel I had the drive to stay in research, push original ideas, and fight for funding,” she said. Her two small children also made a travel-heavy global health job uninviting.
It wasn’t until the final months of her PhD studies that Anastasia drafted a fake cover letter for a job description at the ECDC for the Career Skills for Scientists course and realized that she was actually qualified for the position. She sent in her application and was surprised when three months later she received an interview request. Anastasia finished her PhD part-time as she started her career at the ECDC—a move that she believes improved her thesis. “I felt like it brought a little more policy relevance to my PhD in the end,” she said.
A dynamic career
Anastasia’s focus continued to be on HIV until the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic opened up the sudden need for coronavirus experts. Now, her team works actively with research labs, public health institutes, and politicians to try and implement the most effective public health measures to reduce the burden of COVID-19 across Europe. The urgency of the pandemic has transformed her job, putting Anastasia at the forefront of one of the world’s most pressing issues. “When things go well [in public policy], nobody notices,” she said. “Suddenly with COVID-19, everyone knows what an epidemiologist is.”
COVID-19 has also transformed Anastasia’s position at the ECDC. “We’re supposed to just do science, but we sometimes push a view on policy,” she admitted. Additional changes to her role have come with the acceptance of pre-print research articles as fair game for work discussions. Today, scanning social media platforms such as Twitter for the latest news updates on the pandemic is a part of the job. Such changes have kept her job interesting throughout the years.
When asked if she can see herself in this career for the long-term, Anastasia said yes.
“I love being in the intersection between science and policy. We don’t make policy, we don’t do science, but we bring the two together.”
PhD student, dog lover, mom